This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Joseph Janes. He’s an Associate Professor and chair of the MLIS program at the University of Washington Information School. He’s written a column for the American Libraries Magazine for more than a decade and he’s the author of the new book Library 2020.
All right, Joe, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
You mentioned in the introduction to your book Library 2020 that you chose the year 2020 for your book’s essays because it’s sort of far enough in the future for things to change significantly, but not so far in the future that it’s meaningless extrapolation. But, let’s start with a little meaningless extrapolation. What does the library of the year 2200 look like to you?
Wow, yeah just transpose the digits and you get a whole new world. You know that’s, that’s one of those questions that you either have to get cosmic about or throw up your hands, so I’ll probably do both. I won’t be here to see it so whatever I say, I won’t ever be proven wrong or right. Somebody asked me, one of my colleagues on the faculty here asked me a few years ago what would the library look like in a hundred years and that was sort of just when, you know, the questions about the future began to get really serious. I think it was the beginning of the financial crisis and, you know, libraries were starting to worry about being closed and consolidated and such and I was thrown by the question about a hundred years because it’s so far out and, you know, are we all going to be in hover cars? Blaster rays? You know, where are we going to be in a hundred years? Shiny jumpsuits? And what I, the only thing I could cling to was going back a hundred years and what had persisted and actually quite a lot has in many ways and thinking about the things that have persisted, I mean unfortunately there are some processes and procedures that have persisted and that’s not always to the good, but there is a kind of continuity to our ideas about libraries and you know beyond the little details about serials check in and you know so on, there are, there is continuity and the continuities are the really really essential things and actually those wound up forming the very broad structure of the book. There will be stuff, there’s always going to be stuff, you know the stuff may be different, the stuff may be in different forms, the stuff may be you know created differently, the genres may be different, but there will be stuff. Probably far less materially than we’re used to, but there will be stuff. People are going to crave a sense of space in whatever kind of world we live in, people are going to crave some sort of place and sense of place and sense of space, a sense of place within whatever space we’re living in. There will be communities of whatever configuration and complexion and make-up that libraries emerge from and are intended to serve. There will be people who work within these institutions to make them work and to serve those communities. There will be senses of values and ethics and things that distinguish libraries from other kinds of institutions and those institutions are going to need leadership and vision and those.
Those, I think, are the kinds of things that have persisted in some cases for thousands of years and in some cases for decades and centuries and so I think those are good kind of guideposts to stick in the ground and say, “Alright, let’s talk about space, let’s talk about people, let’s talk about communities, let’s talk about stuff.” Cause otherwise it becomes shiny jumpsuits and hover cars and that’s not productive cause then you’re just making stuff up.
Right and I mean and I think the best speculative fiction, the best science fiction is usually, says more about the present than it does about the far-flung future, even if there are jumpsuits and whatever, there’s more of a, you’re talking about the present and not talking about the future.
Right, right, right. I mean, I got asked over the summer to write a little piece for our alumni association, they were doing a screening of the Star Trek movie and they asked faculty to write a little, you know, little one-page essays for people to read while they’re online and they made their way to me for some reason, which is great because I’m a lifelong Star Trek fan way back to the original series and you know that’s a very, when everyone thinks about the transporter and the medical systems and the phasers and so on, but, I mean that’s an information driven system. The tricorders, an information device, the communicator looked like the old flip phone, voice-activated computer systems, there’s a lot of episodes of that show that gets solved by searching the library computer at some narratively critical moment and that’s, that reinforces that information stuff continues to be important and continues to be critical in solving problems and understanding things better in all kinds of ways. So, yeah, I think in many cases these discussions about where we go from here have a very strong overtone of what are we doing today? And what should we be doing literally tomorrow? What is far out?
Right and I got a lot of that from your book that that seems to be what a lot of the authors were coming from, was looking at what the, sort of the problems and the issues that we’re dealing with now and how we’re going to deal with them, or how they might spin out and how they might be dealt with in the future.
Yeah, I, people, that’s one of the real virtues of this is that people took lots of different approaches and some people took the 2020 thing very seriously and are writing in this sort of future past mode and others are talking about what do we need to do today to get to 2020, or to avoid what 2020 might be like, or and since I gave people no instructions whatsoever other than to be interesting and to start with the, the single phrase, you know, The library in 2020 will be…., I was really quite gratified that people took so many different approaches and undertook them so well and, yeah, there’s as much in here about the recent past and present if you’re reading carefully as there is about the near and even further-term future and, and I think that’s among the reasons I found this so interesting personally and other people seem to be so taken with many of the ideas in here as well.
So, what made you want to put together, put the book together in the first place? What was the idea that got you going?
Well, to be honest, my publisher called me one day and said, “Hey, you haven’t done a book for me in a while, want to do one?” This, I have to credit where credit is due, Charles Herman, who I’ve worked with for years in a variety of settings came to me with the idea of, first asked me if I wanted to write a book about the future and I’d just as soon kill myself, but then said do you want to edit a book about the future? And I said, “That’s a great idea because then it isn’t me.” [laughs] Then I can’t get it wrong if it didn’t come out that way, so all my friends be proven wrong and won’t that be better. And, but I was, you know, there’s been so much talk about the future for the last, gosh, certainly for the last several years you know, as things have changed so dramatically because, not only because of technology which we gotten kind of used to, but also the, the economic and social climate as well. But even going back, when I was involved in the internet public library project all those years ago, back in the middle 90s, people were really asking questions about what, what is the library going to look like going forward. So, the idea was intriguing, but I wanted to do something that wasn’t just you know, yet another book about the future that no-one will pay any attention to and will be quickly forgotten. So, the idea of short pieces and the idea of pieces that, you know, I thought that little trick of starting with the common sentence became a sort of fill-in-the-blank game and a kind of Rorschach test and I, again I was really pleased to see people take that on in such diverse and interesting ways and just to see you know, what a bunch of really smart, talented, interesting people would say if you asked them, “You know, don’t dwell on this, but think about it and where are we going? Or, where might we be going? Or where ought we not be going?” And that was great fun to watch them start to come in when I asked people to, to write essays for me.
So, how did you choose who you approached?
Well, I started out being strategic and then that just completely fell away. I really did want, from the beginning, I really did want a great range in diversity of ideas. I didn’t want it to be just the usual suspects, you know, the same 10 people you hear over and over again. I didn’t want it to be just one perspective, I didn’t want it to be just one kind of library, I didn’t want it to be, I didn’t want it to be just one anything, so I approached largely people I knew cause it’s just easier to ask favors of people you know and I tried to get as broad a brush as I could of background experience, institutional setting, you know, people I’ve known for a long time, there’s a handful of former students in there which you know is a real blessing for having been an educator as long as I have, I’ve got a lot of current and former students who’ve done really interesting things and I also wanted to get people who were new in the profession. People who had not been around since the year 1, people who did not train with DIALOG, or BRS, or people who don’t fondly remember the national union catalog pre-1956 in prints like I do and as well as people who have been around and been in the wars and been at this for 20, 30 or more years. And, so as I started to pull together a list, I thought, “Wow, alright, that’s an interesting group,” and most of the people I approached said yes. I had some people who just weren’t able to because of scheduling or you know, other sorts of things, so the large majority of people I approached were able to help out and, and I think as a result I got this quite intriguing constellation of people from all over the profession and all over North America as it turned out.
Before you wrote the essay that you, you close out the book with your own essay, did you read all the other essays first and try to decide, I want to write something they didn’t talk about?
Yes, well, yes and no. I mean, sure, it’s my book so I get to go last and I get the advantage of reading everybody else’s and nobody in the book, I didn’t do this really intentionally, but nobody knew who the others were, mainly because I was doing this over a period of time and so I didn’t, you know, there was no good way to say, “Hey, guess who joined the club.” but, yes, I had read all the others and, and partially, I mean if I had written mine and written exactly what Dan Chudnov had written, or Cliff Lynch, or Lorraine Roy, I mean what would be the fun in that, but also, I mean a good deal of what I would have said if I were one of these people is, is what I had said anyway and so I, I didn’t feel like I was completely just finding you know, the open spaces, or filling the gaps, or whatever, it was my own 25 cents at the end is largely what I would have said anyway. Maybe not quite so long, but largely what I would have said anyway. But yes I did have the benefit and it, but I didn’t want to write the, you know, pick their highlights and connect the dots kind of thing because then you leave somebody out and then you’re, there’s no way to do that and be authentic about it so I just took my own shot at it.
Did you find some, you’ve got the book broken down into some sections, but did you find some common themes that were running through all of the essays?
Yes and no. I mean, the, the other side of having the kind of diversity and breadth here is that you, you just get lots of different things and it’s very difficult to characterize all of them and I’ve had a couple of people ask me, you know, “So, what does your book say?” Well, my book says about 25 different things, so buy it and read it for yourself and figure it out. There is a large vein of optimism running through it, but it’s not a universal optimism and there are at least a handful of pieces that are very dark. One in particular is, well one or two in particular are kind of dystopian, although one of them pulls out at the end and has a rallying cry at the end of it. I’d say there’s a pretty strong thread of inventiveness, of people thinking about ways in which things might be very different, or things that we might do to make things very different in, you know, people wrote these in 2012 so it was an eight year time frame. Now it’s a seven year time frame. There’s a, there’s a thread of you know… making, I’m not quite sure how to phrase this, that the library still has juice in it and, and what people wrote about was, even when they wrote about things that would be very different, they still had the kind of library DNA in them and I tried to pick up on that in my essay. That whatever, whatever the library is in the short, and for that matter long-run, it still has to be a library, it still has to feel like a library to, to us and to the people we serve and the communities we serve and the people who pay the bills. And, and, but within those very broad things you get essays you know, that are very nuts and bolts and very, you know, really down in the trenches and others that are way up at the kind of philosophical level of what a library is meant to be and, and that’s great. Without trying to engineer that, without trying to suggest to people what to write because I completely didn’t, all I told people was be interesting and start with that sentence and you know, for whatever reason they wound up occupying a lot of space between each other, that’s what I got, so.
Well I, and even the, the darker essays I think aren’t, are more sort of, seem to be darker in a “if libraries don’t do this, then this is what’s going to happen.” It wasn’t a libraries are doomed, it’s a if libraries don’t do this, then they’re doomed.
Yes, right, right. There’s a lot of cautionary tales and, and, I mean most of them are presented in that way. I think there are a couple that you can read and think, “Well, you know, there’s just a lot of things that are going to go on that are out of our control and we have to be able to respond or react to that.” And that’s, I mean that’s always been the case. We are not in the driver’s seat in, in many aspects of what’s going to happen to libraries, you know, in terms of the way the future economy works, in the, in terms of technology, in terms of what, you know, what the future of, of information disbursal is going to be. We have market power in the publishing world but that’s clearly being tested at the moment. We have a lot of mind space in our communities and our constituencies, but, but so do a lot of others and that’s getting pretty crowded, or continues to get pretty crowded. So, there’s a lot of these levers that are out of our control and, but we don’t also, I don’t, I think there’s a thread in here of if we can’t be completely reactive, we have to be active, we have to be thoughtful, we have to be creative and innovative, but in a way that feels right to our communities and to ourselves and also kind of perpetuates the, the way people think about libraries and feel about them and, and there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a tremendous reservoir of positive feeling about libraries everywhere and you see it all over the place. I mean, all of the threats and potential closings and layoffs and stuff and some very bad things have happened, but a lot of communities have risen up and we’ve seen that recently in Miami, you know most recently in Miami, but it’s happened in lots of other places as well where communities have just risen up and saying, “No, you are not going to do that to my library because it’s too valuable, it’s too important, it’s too much a part of my life.” And so, out of this you know very difficult period where a great deal of adversity has been visited upon us all, there are these stories of tremendous reservoirs of support which I think is, which is a real testament to how hard we have worked over the decades to serve our communities really well.
Yeah I, I believe it was in your essay, I’m, that you mention that libraries can coast to a certain degree on our, what we’ve done previously, but that we still need to have a vision for the future, where we’re going.
Yes, right. I mean that the do nothing solution, the everything’s fine you know stick your fingers in the ear la-la-la solution which is just to go on, [coughs] in the short run, sure, I mean that will, people will, tomorrow, if everything is the same tomorrow as it is today people will still come, kids will still have stories told to them, summer reading programs will go on, books will get on shelves, you know metadata will be created, that’s all fine, but, but you can’t imagine that that’s still going to work in seven years. I mean, when you think about all the things that have happened in the previous seven years and how the, how the complexion of the world is changing, about how information is shared, about increasingly mobile and app driven information work, about how, you know about how communities are changing, about how money is changing hands and how things are distributed, I mean you just can’t imagine that a steady state solution is at all workable.
And to be honest, I don’t think that, you know, 10 years or so ago there were people who genuinely believed that if you just sort of waited it out, all of this change would go away and we’d somehow go back to the good old days, whatever those were, which were old but weren’t necessarily all that good. And I think a lot of that has gone away. There is still a, a stratum of the profession that is deeply unhappy about what’s, what has happened over the last 15 years and still kind of mad about it and as a result either actively or passively working against innovation and trying to do things, I think that stratum is diminishing but it’s still there and, and it’s a real challenge to us, it’s among the greater challenges we have. You know, to me that’s counterbalanced by, when I look at the leadership of lots of our major libraries, and smaller libraries as well for that matter, when I look at the kind of people running ARL libraries and Urban Library Council places and you know, people I talk to in leadership positions, there’s a lot of energy there. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the future, there’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on and when I look at my own students and our recent graduates, people who have these great ideas and tremendous energy and they know so many things and they’re so facile with technology and they’re so engaged in trying to help people and all of this, you know, that, that is what gives me optimism and hope, is when I see the leadership and when I see the new-blood coming into the profession. And if all the rest of us could be as welcoming as we could be, that kind of leadership and of that kind of energy entering the profession, we’re in really good shape. And there’s lots of places where that works and that, those are real role models for all of us.
Well, at the end of your essay [spoiler alert] you say that librarianship is the most important profession. Can you elaborate on that?
I say this all the time. I say this to my students, I say this to people who come to our information sessions, I say this in classes, I say this all the time. With all due respect to our colleagues in the other professions and particularly to the, to those who are nearest to us in the, you know, in the archival world and the museum world and so on, we make everybody else better. We as librarians, we as libraries, as institutions, are one of those professions that it, the human record is entrusted into our care. We have the record of everything that has gone before and we make that useable, we, we collect it, we evaluate it, we organize it, we manage it, we search it, we help people to use it so that they can create new things and with the human record in our care, we are in a position to make healthcare better, we make education better, we make agriculture better, we make law better, we make science better, we make everybody else better because all those functions are better knowing what has gone before. And as a result, to my mind, what we do is the most critical thing that humanity does, is to keep the record and keep it alive and help it to be used and consulted so that we can do better next time and, and that to me is, is the most satisfying, nourishing thing you can do. That’s part of the reason that you know, Library Journal does these surveys and they ask librarians would you, if you had it to do all over again, would you? And they routinely get like 80, 85, 90% of librarians say yes, they would choose this career again. Well it’s not for the money or the fame or the glamor I can tell you that, we all know better than that. It’s because it’s, it’s just you know, so important and it’s just so fascinating and it’s just so necessary and it makes such a huge impact in the lives of individuals in our communities. You just can’t, it’s hard to kind of overstate that and people don’t necessarily don’t think of us that way.
You know, we’ve done a great job of making our work invisible because it’s in service of so much other work and that’s a virtue, but it also runs the risk of then people ignoring you, or overlooking you, or taking you for granted and, and so, I mean that’s why I say all the time to anybody, anybody who will listen, that librarianship is the most important profession because without it, we make everybody else better and, and I don’t think people, people don’t appreciate or think about that until they, until it’s brought to their attention and, plus it makes, it’s a rallying cry and we could use those because it, it helps people to acknowledge the value of their own work and their own profession and I think you, again it’s hard to overdo that.
Well, you’ve been mining that record of humanity there with your podcast, Documents That Changed [the World].
What made you want to do this – number one the project? I mean it seems a very librarian-y project, but what in particular made you want to do it as a podcast as opposed to, you know, proposing as a new column for American Libraries or Library Journals or something like that?
It’s, well I’ve always been kind of fascinated by the radio, I think if I’d been born 70 or 80 years ago I would just desperately want to be on the radio, much as I am kind of on the radio right now. And, and I hate being photographed so radio works really well for me, and as almost anybody who’s ever taken a class from me, or who knows me at all, knows that I, I love nothing better than the sound of my own voice, so podcasting is perfect for me. And, and I just like the format, you know, the way I’ve been doing the pieces that I’ve been doing, they’re about anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes long and so they’re these little dollops of, of history about important documents and, and the impacts they’ve had and also about documents themselves. It’s another of these, you know, people don’t think about the power of documentary forms until you sort of reveal them to them and what these things are and why they happened and how they’ve made an impact and, and how they also have woven their way into everyday life without us really thinking about them very hard and, and you know, I approached those as a librarian, but I also approached them as a, a scholar and researcher and also as an information scientist, thinking of that and there’s a whole vein of research and information science back to the middle of the last century about documentation and that actually is the origins of information science in a lot of ways, the study of documents and how it, in those days it was technical reports and journal articles, but, but you know, how documents got the way they are and what social functions they inhabit and how we use them and, and you know, I also try to make them fun and interesting and, cause they can be pretty deadly and the response so far has been quite gratifying. People, once people discover it, they love it, so, and I love doing it, as I’m a, basically doing the research for those things is by, like being a reference librarian which is what I was born to do, so I research something, I dig it out for a couple of weeks, I read all this stuff, I write up a little script, I record it and then I move onto the next, it’s paradise. I can’t tell you how insanely fun it is to these and I’ve, I’m up to about, I just did number 23 and I love doing them, love, love, love doing them.
Well and the fun thing, I think, is the, and you’ve said that this is sort of your mission even, of that you’re not going to do a Constitution one or a Magna Carta, you’re doing documents that are really important and people know what they are, but it’s maybe a different angle than.
Yeah, yeah, I did do a constitutional amendment. I wasn’t going to do the Bill of Rights, because I mean what can I say about the Bill of Rights that hasn’t already been said? I finally broke down, the last one I finished was the Rosetta Stone and I finally broke down and did the Rosetta Stone. Partially because I was just in London at the British Museum and went to a little talk about it and it inspired me, but also because I found something to say that hasn’t necessarily been said about the Rosetta Stone, about which a great deal has been said let me tell you, I just read it all. But, the, the journey of the Rosetta Stone as a document, you know, I mean everybody thinks of it as the big rock in the British Museum and it’s the way we cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics and therefore we discovered their civilization. Yes, yes, yes, all true and Egyptians want it back, yes, so it, there’s a little bit of you know, cultural repatriation going on in there, but, this thing was quarried out of a, out of the side of a hill about 2200 years ago, sailed down the Nile, carved and then it became a thing. Now, it’s a decree, now it’s propped up outside a temple and people, you know, “Hey this king is really important, even though he’s a little bit shaky and only a teenager,” and then it gets taken down and made into building material, still carved, still, but, so it’s still a document but nobody sees it for about a thousand years. Then it gets dug up, then it gets put in the British Museum and then it becomes the gateway to Egyptian civilization. So, the, the journey of that thing as a document and for at least a thousand years it sits underground, I mean is it still a document if it’s buried under the foundations of a fort that it’s used as building material for? There’s an interesting question. I think that whole journey is just quite stunning and that was something that nobody had, I, I couldn’t find anybody talked about it because they’re not interested in it that way, they’re interested in it as an Egyptology thing, it’s a museum thing, it’s an artifact, it’s a this, a that, but nobody had yet, at least not that I found, had talked about the thing as a, as an information object exclusively. So, and the others I’ve chosen have, you know, been the, the first IQ test and the, and Robert’s Rules of Order and the AIDS quilt and the 18 ½ minute gap and, you know, Gutenberg’s indulgences and things like that, you know, that people are vaguely aware of but they don’t know the story of necessarily and they certainly don’t give thought about it in the sense of what are these things as, as documents, as information objects, as historical objects, that sort of thing. So, that’s that’s why this has been just so fascinating for me, is to be able to do that.
Yeah, I think the one about Pope Benedict’s resignation letter was my favorite one. [laughs] Just the interesting to go, to go back and then hear all the history about the, the papal history and all this kind of stuff was really interesting.
Oh, well and that was the first one that I did sort of, as the result of something that was going on in the real world and I’d been doing this for a few months when the pope decides to up and resign. Well, you know, how does the pope do that? It was the first one in several hundred years and so, you know, so then you go back and you do all the papal resignations, including the crazy one who lived in a box and one of the cardinals put a tube into the box to convince him to retire because it was easier to be rid of him than not. And there were all these great, you know, only the papacy has that kind of longevity with those kinds of stories. But then, then you get into resignation letters and Nixon’s and Edward the Eighth, and you know, how do you, and, and the point of a resignation letter is to say that at a specific time and date, I am no longer this person anymore.
I am no longer the President, I am no longer the King, I am no longer the CEO, I am no longer the Dean, I am no longer the Pope. And it, so it really gets into a certainty and finality that the point of a resignation is, is to eliminate ambiguity about who’s in charge and, and the document is something you can point to and say, “Okay, you said that on this date and in this hour you were now no longer this person,” and that piece of paper effectively has the power to dislodge you from that position. Now, granted, it’s a piece of paper you signed, whether willingly or not, but, but you know, the instrument of abdication said that at the point Edward the Eighth was no longer the king and somebody else was and Nixon was no longer president and Gerald Ford was and Benedict was no longer pope and then for a while nobody was because they hadn’t elected a successor yet. And I didn’t really realize that was the story until I get into it. I thought, “Oh my god the pope’s resigning, everybody’s talking about the resignation, I should do something about that,” so that was the only one I did sort of on demand as an event was going on and as a result it was a much more compressed process, but, but lots of people were talking about papal resignations and I thought, “Well, okay, I can say something about that,” and it wound up being about ambiguity and finality, which I didn’t quite anticipate.
So does the, does that happen a lot when you start to research something, it kind of goes in a different direction than you thought it was going to?
Very much so. You know, I did the rules of association football, the rules of soccer, cause I’m a sports fan and I just thought that’d be cool and that wound up getting into creativity, that you know, rules, all sport, sport, somebody said, and I quoted this in the podcast, sport without rules is just play. So, if you know, you’re just out in the field kicking a soccer ball around or playing a pick up game of softball, or whatever, you know, you can make a rock into second base and you can make the car into home plate and whatever and nobody really cares. But, if you, but any sport has rules and, and the rules are often lines and structures and prohibitions and would we have the, the Hail Mary pass if there wasn’t a clock in football, you know, you only do the Hail Mary at the very end of the half or the game because otherwise you don’t have to. So, you wouldn’t have the Hail Mary if there wasn’t a clock, you wouldn’t have a, a spinny serve if you didn’t have lines, the service lines in tennis. You know, you wouldn’t have the three point shot if you didn’t have the arc in basketball. So, all rules produce creativity because without constraint creativity often goes flying off into the ether. So, I didn’t really anticipate that was going to wind up being about creativity until I really dug into the nature of, of constraint. And, and they are, many of them have sort of taken that, that kind of road. I did the, the letters of transit from Casablanca, cause I’m also a movie nut and that wound up being about travel documents and just the history of travel documents and, and how pieces of paper help us move from one place to another, which you know, you don’t, here’s my passport and you don’t really think about it. But, there’s a whole sort of history of not only travel documentation, but also personal identity and… So many of these have wound up being, you tell the story of the object and you tell the story of the impact it had, but then it also, you know, it reveals something a little bit more about the nature of, of how we think about ourselves, how we, and how we represent that in some sort of documentary form.
And, one of your episodes was done by one of your students.
I’ve actually had a couple, yeah, I had a student, Andy Brink who’s now working at Vulcan. A little over a year ago he and I worked on the first two together. He did John Snow’s cholera map, which was fascinating in, and is still the most popular episode on the, on the, in the series. And I did the Gregorian calendar. And so we worked together to figure out what the thing would be like and how to do it and how to record them and all the, you know, all the mechanics of it and then I had a student last spring, Eli Ganderude who did the first x-ray and he’s now happily employed down at the University of Puget Sound, which is great. So, my students are two for two in terms of [laughs] work with me, make a podcast episode, get a job!
That’s the lesson that they’ve learned. And, and you know, for them it was an opportunity to do the research and think about how you would present this and you know, how,and they both, it was a great experience. And then I had a couple of other students Carly Williams and Cat Coff who built a website that I’m about to launch to house all the, a Drupal site, so they learned all about Drupal and such, to, to house the podcasts which one of these days I’ll get it populated and then I can launch it. So, yeah, it’s been, it started as a project with a student and I’m glad that I was able to work with more last year and hope to do so again, but for the moment it’s just me plodding along, you know, making my way through history one document at a time.
Yeah, my, my wife is an epidemiologist so she liked the, that episode, the John Snow.
And the cholera map, you know, we were both groping our way through this and, and read this truly gruesome book about the cholera epidemic which is just, oh my god that’s a terrible way to die. And, we, we got down to the, to the document part of it and I said, “You know, that’s, the cholera map is big data.” It’s mid 19th century big data because what John Snow was facing, what, what the public health, what, what public health there was in middle 19th century London which was precious little and completely wrong, cause everybody believed disease was caused by miasma, by bad air, instead of bacteria in the water among other things and, so he had, you know, the weekly death statistics that were being published, he had interviews and, and first-hand accounts from people who were living there, he had observation of what was going on and, and this is pulling lots of data sources together, each of which had a piece of the puzzle, but none of which had the answer, and, but it was the integration and then the production of the map as a way of kind of consolidating the large amounts of data that really crystallized all of it and helped people to understand first of all why everybody was dying and which pump it was that was infected, but then also, oh, you know, the disease is caused by water and not by air. And that still took decades, even though he had you know, the answer, it took decades for the miasma theory to, to lose favor and even today, oh, stuff that smells, you want to avoid it ‘cause that’s going to make you sick or whatever, which may or may not be true but it’s, that’s not what’s doing it.
Yeah, so, yeah, so they’re just really, really fun and I’ve got a list of another 30 or 40 that I haven’t done yet and I’m always finding, you know, oh yeah I could do that one, oh yeah that would be kind of cool, There’s always another one, so, I’m still having a ball doing those.
Yeah, I, I assumed you had a really long list, but, you’re in no danger of ending the podcast soon.
Oh gosh no, you know, if anything I, I keep cycling through like, “I should really do that,” but then I get distracted by something fun and like, “I’m going to do this instead,” and yeah, yeah, I, among other things I’m easily distracted by shiny objects and. And then this, so it’s starting, as we record this it’s September, this coming quarter here on campus at the UDub I’m teaching a freshman seminar. I haven’t taught freshman in so long I don’t even know what they look like. I’m teaching a freshman seminar about the, it’s, with this is a theme, so I’ve got 15 freshman and we’re an hour a week and we’re going to take a document a week and it will be just fascinating to see how 18 year olds think about you know, the first IQ test and the Guttenberg indulgence and Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb and. I was going to do the 18 ½ minute gap, the Watergate 18 ½ minute gap and I thought, “They don’t even remember Watergate.”
I mean if, what, and now it’s just too, cause I lived through Watergate, that would be just too depressing, is to try to, I mean I could talk about the Rosetta Stone with them, that’s not going to bother me, but the fact that they have no idea who Nixon was, that would freak me out. So I decided against the 18 ½ minute gap, but. And the Obama birth certificate, that will be very interesting, the discussion around birth certificates and I’m less interested in the Obama birth certificates than in birth certificates in general, but that’s a way to introduce it, so.
Yeah, that was a great episode too, so.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah and again that one, you know, I was motivated by doing them because the whole birther thing and you know, whatever. But then what a birth certificate is and what it’s for and how it’s structured and all the rules. You know, It reads like cataloging codes and all these little, cause you know, this is a big deal and it, it’s, it’s the first document anybody ever gets, it follows you for your whole life, used in vital statistics, so I found this, you know, these government documents about how to fill in birth certificates and how to, you know, what the rules are and how to decide, you know, what the place of birth was and what if you don’t know who the father is and what if they don’t have a name yet and all of this stuff, which is you know, very familiar to us because you know, what if you don’t know who the author is, what if you don’t know when the thing was published, what if it’s, you know, what if it’s fugitive material, what do you do with it. So, it reads very familiarly, my favorite little tidbit is if a child is born on a moving conveyance, so like in an airplane, or on a boat, or whatever, the official place of birth is where ever the thing lands.
So if a child is born in an airplane and then it lands in you know, Las Vegas, the child is officially born in Las Vegas, even though they might have been born you know, 30,000 feet over Kansas, even though they don’t let pregnant women fly any more. But if it’s born on a boat then it’s where it docks, if it’s born in a train it’s the next stop, because you’ve got to have a, I mean how do you, you’re too busy giving birth to the child, you don’t know where you are. So you, and there has to be a place of birth so that’s as good a rule as any, which makes as much sense as cataloging rules did, so.
Yeah, in a middle of a birth you don’t say, “Whip out a GPS, quick!”
Yeah, “Get your GPS device, you know, where are we?” “Ahhh I think we’re in Nebraska.” “All right, then you’re born in Nebraska.” Right, which doesn’t make any sense, but, and you see both sides of that. So, that’s the, you know, that was one of those that, that was the first one that kind of took me in a direction I wasn’t expecting. That, that, okay birth certificates are, again, who thinks about their birth certificate? Nobody, I mean, I, I haven’t looked, I mean I’ve looked at mine a bunch because I did the podcast and I’ve used it as a prop, but you know, last time I actually needed it I think was to get a passport and that would have been like 30 years ago and nobody looks at my birth certificate and nobody, it’s possible nobody will ever look at my birth certificate again and, and yet, with that, it’s the beginning of the, of my entire identity and without it all the pieces crumble, but again, even if I lost my birth certificate I’d go get another copy. It’s quite extraordinary when you think about it, how pervasive these things are and yet how completely invisible they can be.
Except when you’re running for president. [laughs]
Except when you’re running for president and now we’ve been through this whole thing again with the, what’s his name?
Yeah, who I guess was born in Alberta, but he didn’t mean it, I’m an American, oh my god, you know! Well, sorry dude that’s the rule, you know, if you don’t like it and we would have been done this road with John McCain ‘cause he was born in the Canal zone which was a territory, but it wasn’t really a state, it wasn’t the United States or not, and right. And, right. And you know, 30% of people think that Obama was born in Kenya or some ungodly place and you know, well, and you’re never going to change that.
Yeah, I just imagine the people in the Honolulu Secretary of State’s office or whatever just ripping their hair out, all the time.
Well, I mean they put up a page on their website, do not bother us with this any more here it is and so the birthers have all these, you know, conspiracy theories about the document and why it wasn’t released and so on. And then there’s the people who have picked apart the PDF, that Hawaii’s Department of State has put up.
The PDF is wrong. It, the PDF has too many layers and it doesn’t have the right, you know, encoding and it’s been tampered with and I’m, “Oh my god! You people are nuts!” And, but, you know, and there’s no way you can convince people, absolutely no way you can convince people. I did a, a, one of the major anti-Semitic tracts, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which, I mean it’s been disproven in so many different ways you can’t possibly imagine that it’s a fake, that it’s plagiarized, that it’s you know, and there are still people who, I mean it’s still being published, it’s still being read, it’s still being believed and there, there’s just no way to out-prove a conspiracy. If people believe that the president was not born in Hawaii, or that he’s a Muslim, or that people believe that 9/11 was an inside job, or people believe that the Jews are trying to take over the world, or. You can’t, you can’t prove your way out of that because then that’s part of it, then that’s the conspiracy, that’s all, you know, that’s all part of the deal. So.
Right, the, that proof is the cover up.
Absolutely right and, and there’s, there are large online tracks devoted to demonstrating the, the disproofs of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are part of the larger conspiracy, by pointing out bits and pieces of the disproof of the, of the you know, the proof of the origins and genealogy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that’s all part of it. So, when you read this stuff you get, I got lost half the time because I wasn’t sure what I was reading. Was I reading the real Protocols which is a fake? Was I reading the, something that was disproving the fake? Was I reading something that was disproving the disproving the fake? And they all take the truth for granted, so they don’t say, you know, nobody says, “Well here’s what so and so, but it also says,” because they’re only interested in one side of the argument. It’s like being in a fun house, I mean you just don’t know which way is up. So, I had a lot of trouble writing that one because, or at least keeping track of my own research because it was, it was so backwards and jumbled and upside down and there was just no, there was no way out of it, so you know, I had, every once in awhile I had to stop doing the research ‘cause I didn’t know where I was anymore. And, you know, I mean, ultimately, and then of course I had to work in Cabaret, you know. [laughs]
Because, why not and the song from Cabaret, there’s this you know, sort of anthem in the middle of Cabaret that winds up being stormtroopers and it’s a lovely song, it sounds like a German folk song, but is actually written for the show and then there’s these you know, white power groups who believe that it’s a real Nazi song that’s been and they’ve played it and they think it’s the only good song in Cabaret because the rest of it’s a real downer because it’s all about anti-semitism and Nazism and the war and so on and, and I found these you know, discussion groups from, from white power supremacy people trying to find the origin, the German lyrics to the song, you know, when was the original song written? And there’s white power bands that have recorded it as a, sort of, you know, I mean completely in violation of copyright law, but they don’t care, as a kind of you know, you know, uplifting song for the white power crowd and, and it was written by two Jews for a musical and they won the Tony for it and they’re, and I found of these discussion boards where somebody finally broke in and said, “You know, this was written for Cabaret and it was written by Kander and Ebb and they’re Jews.” And it just killed the discussion, cause the whole point of the discussion was what a great song it was and how do I get the original lyrics and who wrote it and you know, do you have recordings of it in German and blahdy blahdy blah and then, you know, it takes a while for people to come to the realization that the person saying that it was written for Cabaret is right and they don’t even try to contradict him, it just stops the discussion. It was extraordinary to see, you know, what the truth will do when people just can’t hear it.
Right, “How dare you bring facts into this discussion!”
Well, but there wasn’t even indignation, there was just, I mean I could picture people sitting at home you know, in their discussion boards and they just don’t know what to do with it, so they just stop. There wasn’t the, I mean I was expecting rants, “How could you say that? Blah blah blah blah blah.” It just stopped and then they moved onto other things. It was, I mean it was frightening, but also revealing, that you can’t, you can’t prove your way out of a conspiracy and, and that’s a little sobering.
Well, to bring it back into more positive.
On that note, your book is all about the future and I think generally, as you said, it’s a generally optimistic thread for the future. But, as a library information school professor, how do you keep up the curriculum? With the future so in flux how do you keep up what you teach the students? To know sort of what to teach them?
It’s very hard and I’m right in the middle of facing that as we speak because we start classes in about a week and a half and. One of the classes I teach for our, for our new Master’s students is about information resources and services, it’s not really a reference class, but it, you know, we talk about information resources and how they developed and we, so that includes the book and the scholarly journal and you know, every year about this time I go back and think, “Well you know, what’s happened to the book this year? Oh my god.” You know, what hasn’t happened to the book this year. And what’s happened in the scholarly journal, you know, and so I’ve been through the whole Google books settlement thing, I’ve been through the whole e-book thing now twice, you know, what’s going to. The e-book, first e-book attempt in the you know, early 2000s and now again and open source journals and open access this and, and you know, oh my god. But I can’t not talk about Guttenberg, so, you know, every year it’s something’s got to go. What, and I haven’t decided yet what it is this year, but will you just have to do it faster? And, and yet still make it coherent. So, I don’t talk about the Google Books settlement anymore, cause I just don’t have time for it and it doesn’t seem as relevant as you know, the, the things that we’re learning from places like Douglas County about pricing models and, and distribution models for e-books and what publishers will and will not allow us to do any more. So, I’m a, I spent several years picking apart the Google Books settlement and all the bits and pieces of it and who was right and who was wrong. I just don’t have time for that any more, so the Google Books thing is gone.
I feel like I ought to do the Apple thing. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get into that, ‘cause again it’s, you can’t just say, “Oh and then Apple got sued and they lost and now they have to do this. But let’s talk about this instead.” You know, it’s breadth versus depth and you try to do both, but it becomes, you know, it becomes increasingly challenging to do justice to everything and, and you know, then you read things in the, in the press where, “Oh, what are they teaching people in library schools these days? Blah blah blah blah blah.” Well, you know, we’re trying our best and.
And it’s not, you know, it’s not for lack of wanting to cover everything, but you know, as it is we’ve got students for two years, we’re one of the longer masters programs in the business and a full two-year, full-time program and people still leave like, “I’m not ready. You know, I’ve still got three more classes I want to take and I still want to do this internship and I still want to work on this project.” I’m like, “Sorry, you’re done, you’re cooked, out you go, learn it on the job, have a nice life, you know, we’ve got the next crop coming in.” And then you know, you get raked over the coals ‘cause you’re not teaching some picky shit thing that people want to whine about in Library Journal. Well, sorry, you know, I mean I know a lot of people who are librarians who majored in Tuesday afternoon anyway, so [laughs]
and I was kind of one of them, so. I, I respect what our colleagues in the profession say because they, you know, they’re facing the reality of the situation every day, you know, and their training budgets have been cut, that was the first thing to go, I totally get it, but you know, we can’t, we can’t do justice to everything, there’s just no way to do justice to everything. So, you know, for those of us in the education business to respect and acknowledge that there are things that we simply cannot cover and. And there’s lots of different programs and some cover some things in more detail than others and I tell people all the time, you know, “We may not be the right program for you, if you’re looking for something really specific that we don’t do, don’t come here cause it’s not doing you any good and it’s not doing us any good. But here are the things that we do do really well, so if you’re interested in this and if you’re interested in this kind of education and this kind of a program with this unbelievable faculty and this incredible staff and these fantastic students then by all means come and join us.” But, it is frustrating and, and you know I also spend a lot of time standing in front of classes feeling about 150 years old because I say things like, you know, “Well, back in the old days when we had gophers, holy crap.” You know.
And I’m feeling ancient about things that they’ve never even heard of, that was only 10 or 15 years ago and, and, but you know, I, I don’t feel right about sending them out the door without knowing about the national union catalog pre-1956 imprints. I mean I do teach that still in reference, not as a useful tool ‘cause it’s hardly ever is, but because it tells a story about what we as a profession have done. That was a monumental task that we took on and did really well and it was a really great idea for about 20 years and then it was gone. And there’s a lot of stories embedded in that and you need to, I think people are better off for knowing those stories. And we happen to have them on open shelves here so people can go look at them. And every once in a great while it comes in handy. But you also need to know about, you know, Google Now, which just came out a few weeks ago which is freaking people out.
And, and you know, except it’s a great idea except for the part that it’s incredibly intrusive and creepy. And somewhere in between the national union catalog pre-1956 imprints and Google Now is where we sit and where do we go from here?
So, what is it about libraries at their core that you think will keep them relevant until 2020 and beyond? And just why do you think libraries will endure into the future?
Well there’s something about them. I, you know, I, the, what we’ve seen over the last few years of people really rising to the defense of their libraries and, and communities supporting their public libraries, and academic communities and school communities to support their libraries, that really speaks something about the role that these things play in our lives. That, that, you know, again it’s easy to take them for granted, it’s easy to stereotype us, I, this bun and the sensible shoes and the sexy librarian image and all of that not withstanding. There is a real, to use a horrible business phrase, there is a real value proposition to the thing and when you get right down to it, the large majority of people recognize and acknowledge and appreciate and value that and, and that’s something we have built up for generations. That kind of support, that kind of service mentality, that kind of, of niche within the community that people really value and that we, we value as well as professionals. And it’s one of those institutions that is just really hard to think about doing without, even as different as we all know it has to be and, and as familiar as we all know that it has to be. We’re also constrained by, you can’t change too much, too fast because then you lose people and then it becomes, you know, what now, what that’s not what a library is, what are we doing about this? So, within that probably fairly narrow set of parameters, there’s room for tremendous innovation. I think people want us to succeed, you know, nobody hates libraries, well a few people hate libraries and librarians, but not very many. We’re one of those professions and one of those institutions that people generally have a real fondness for. They want us to succeed, they want us to be better, they want us to be there for their kids, for their parents, for themselves, for their communities, for their schools, for their institutions. They want us to be good, they want us to be available and, and I think people generally recognize that they are better off with us than without us and, and you know, when I meet librarians and when I talk to librarians and when I see our new students in a couple of weeks, there’s just this, there’s still this drive, this almost need to serve, to, to help communities, to help people, to, to build the tools, to, to undertake the services, to lead the institutions, to be able to be you know, even better and stronger and more effective for our communities and. So, you put that all together and that, that, and you add you know, a dash of, of innovation, you add a dash of imagination, you add a dash of risk taking and, and productive failure of which I am a big fan and, and to me that’s a recipe for success and I think it, ultimately I am hopeful and actually quite confident that, that the library world and, and libraries in general and librarians will thrive in a, in a familiarly different or differently familiar kind of way and, and continue to grow and strengthen in the days and years to come.
All right. Well, Joe thank you so much for putting all your thoughts together in, and your friends and colleagues thoughts together in the book and for sharing your thoughts about the future of libraries here with me today.
Well thank you so much, this has been great fun.
All right, thanks a lot, bye.