Post #2: DRM, copyright and librarianship

May 26, 2007

For much of my life I have contemplated copyrights, patents and trademarks. I know it sounds strange, and I certainly didn’t think about it consciously, way back when. Only in hindsight does it seem so clear.

I used to be a walking TV Guide. I could tell you when any program was on, time of day, day of the week, and possibly in rerun. By tenth grade a friend and I compiled a list of cartoons that we each had seen at least three episodes of, and in one hour long class we came up with slightly over three hundred. Around the same time, I figured out that I had solved or otherwise completed about the same number of video games, and in at least five platforms; Vectrex, Intellivision, Atari 2600 and 800XL, Commodore 64…

(Writing this today, especially remembering those lists, makes me wonder why I’m not anxious to be a cataloger)

At the same time, I started to notice how different some stores were from others. Why did Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks and Coliseum have such similar book selections, but Montclair Book Center and the Strand were so remarkably different. I resisted the pervasive culture of advertising, and each year NYC, where I spent much of my undergraduate free time, seemed to be reaching a saturation point. I started to think about the vending machines in my high school, how one year all of the ones I liked disappeared and suddenly we only had Coca-Cola products. I didn’t understand, but I started to recognize branding.

Times Square was reimagineered by Disney, and afterward I literally couldn’t see the traffic lights for all of the neon, belching smoke effects and animatronics. A few years later it was colonized by enormous television modules, and I had a vision of taxi cabs and vans enveloped by them too. By the time advertising started to appear on sidewalks, in urinals, and was blanketing 25 story building facades like a commercial Christo installation, I was curious about for-profit corporations and their principles.

What does this have to do with librarianship? Corporate consolidation is fundamental to the American landscape, I believe, and impacts every level of our profession. I am currently taking a class in management, and am working on a paper about the effects of Digital Rights Management (DRM), Creative Commons, and the dissemination of information. An article about the meaning of librarianship by Henry T. Blanke called Librarianship and Political Values: Neutrality or Commitment has really helped me understand what is happening in this digital age to our libraries, and why a record number of graduates with MLIS degrees are entering the corporate world.

As with health care, warfare, and water and energy supplies, forces are at work to privatize information. In 1982, the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science published a report stating that “the Federal government should establish and enforce policies and procedures that encourage…investment by the private sector in the development and use of information products and services.” The age of mechanization has segued into the age of information, and today the United States primarily profits from an information culture, not a manufacturing culture.

Librarianship has held on to a notion of neutrality and allowed any guiding control over the dissemination of information to slip away. Colleges are beginning to reconsider whether or not they need physical library spaces. Public libraries are closing at rates faster than they are opening. Many librarians are now called Information Specialists, Data Providers, and Knowledge Managers. We are embracing marketing techniques, and our patrons are called customers, or even clients. These trends reflect a fundamental shift towards privatization, and are impeding our ability to provide equitable access, stewardship, and even limit intellectual freedom.

“The idea that any enterprise, scientific or social, can extricate itself from the political culture in which it is embedded is dubious. Often such enterprises that strive for an ideal of neutrality will unconsciously adopt a dominant value orientation, one all the more tenacious for being unexamined… Without a willingness on the part of librarians to define their values in political terms and actively defend those values against the interests of wealth and power, such fundamental library ideals as free and equal access to information are in jeopardy. (Blanke, 40)”

The remarkable success of Amazon, of Google and of Netflix comes in part from their ability to aggregate individual’s recommendations. They have succeeded by encoding what librarians have always done, through readers advisory and collection development, and made it broadly effective in a populist and enjoyable way. It’s a shame, really, that these collaborative and communicative channels did not already exist in the library profession, and that we did not recognize what they were doing immediately. We need to be working with one another, harnessing the “wisdom of crowds” and putting our own expertise to good use. We need to be acting with a community focus through global intelligence, much in the manner that SARS was initially investigated through responsive, unimpeded scientific dialogue.

We cannot compete in the marketplace by any stretch, but we need to responsibly adopt marketing techniques, with an eye toward transparency, not inculcation. We cannot let DRM systems wrest control of information away from us, nor should we quietly accept the infiltration of spyware bundled with them. By embracing licensing such as Creative Commons advocates for we can stay ahead of our information supply competitors, and help keep information in the public domain. The more regulations about how information is disseminated there are, the less relevant we become. We need to build on the emotional connections that people have with libraries, and we need to welcome everyone to the table, especially our younger users, respectfully.

The elements of life are being copyrighted, as is the food we eat. We need to advocate for the rights we have to our selves and our environments. A bedrock of this is freedom of information. “Not only the health and vitality of our library profession is at stake, but that of our democracy as well. (Blanke, 43)”


May 21, 2007

This weekend I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, and along with revisiting several of my favorite pieces (such as The Praying Jew and the Giacometti sculptures) I took a look at several Futurist paintings.  I am reading a book called Mechanization Takes Command, mentioned in my first post, which details the evolution of innumerable everyday objects, as well as the far-reaching effects mechanization imposed on our day to day lives.  Futurism was a visceral response to studies of motion in the early 1900s, and the images many of those artists created are powerful distillations of turn-of-the-century philosophies about labour management, human potential and scientific advances.

It’s hard to understand today the far-reaching revolution of motion studies, and how they in turn guided “actualities” by the Lumiere Brothers at the dawn of cinema. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 is such an influential work because it represented scientific explorations in such a provocative and public way, but really all he did was copy the work of Eadweard Muybridge.  As the popular saying goes, it’s better to do something second than it is to do it first.

Mechanization is so pervasive that the idea of a Robotic Librarian is almost banal.  Along with jet packs, flying cars and colonies on Mars the idea almost seems quaint in a retro-futurist sort of way.  In reality, though, the idea is gaining in influence, and several of us after graduation day may need to make the acquaintance of a Robotic Librarian sooner rather than later.  So here are a few posts about automated systems that may be coming to a library near you.

First here is a BBC article about bookish robots developed at the University Jaume I in Spain.  Next up is the Automatic Control Laboratory website which offers robotic storage and access for library materials, citing a study conducted at Chicago State University as evidence of their value.  It also has a short video showing how these robots work.  As a corollary, here is a link to the Chicago State University page showing the benefits of their new robotic friends.  This CSU project has even made its way onto an “exemplary” wikia article about the future of robotics, which highlights numerous innovations that will change the way we live.  This will impact our very chemistry as well, and Pfizer employs several robotic librarians in their warehouse of millions of “druglike chemicals.”  (Mention of the library and the robot messenger is on page 3 of the article)  Not everyone is happy about these systems, however, as seen in this letter to USU about a proposed tuition hike, part of which will be used to fund a “proposed multi-million dollar library.”

There’s an unwieldy amount of material about robotic librarians out there with a minimum of searching, and numerous articles available to Dominican University students through our databases.  In many ways, what Google and other search tools are doing can be seen as the efforts of Robotic Librarians, if one considers the automated aggregating they perform on the scale of billions of units of data per second.  What does all of this mean for us flesh and blood librarians toiling away in the infosphere?  I just don’t know, but it’s thrilling to have the opportunity to try and find out.

Cortometraje de Virgil Widrich

May 20, 2007

Any fans of animation, especially the more unusual (Svankmajer, Bickford and maybe Karel Zeman) branch of things, may appreciate this distillation of cinema by Virgil Widrich. I just came across this, and it is incredible. I aspire to make collage animations myself, as soon as I can afford a 5 to 7 megapixel monster myself, and this little video is particularly inspiring.

I am an enormous film buff, having watched way too many hours of anything I can get my hands on. I am recently into the dawn of cinema, especially the documentaries by Russian innovator Dziga Vertov. I have a personal goal to watch at least one film from every single year since the dawn of motion pictures, and I think I only have about twenty years left to find films from. (Meaning, since 1893, there are only twenty missed years, mostly from 1903 to 1925, yet somehow I’ve seen nothing from 1953. A genuine mystery…)

Some months it’s just martial arts films, sometimes avant feminist Czech cinema from the 60s and 70s (which, by the way, if you haven’t seen Daisies by Věra Chytilová and are receptive to magisterial, surreal visions a la Buñuel, you should check it out), sometimes just TV shows from around the world on Youtube. So, here it is, Fast Film by Virgil Widrich for your viewing pleasure.

Let me know what you think.

Post #1: Internet Filtering

May 18, 2007

The Internet Screening Library Act has recently passed the Illinois General Assembly, and I feel alternatively ambivalent and disheartened about it. I am often strongly on the side of information transparency, the freedom of speech, and the freedom to share in the human record. For me it’s also about honesty; if we cannot freely discuss who we are interpersonally, generationally or societally, then we are in shadow, another degree further from understanding ourselves.

The Internet is a mirror of humankind, for better or worse. I feel very much that there are responsible ways to share, with all ages and people alike, in the unprecedented wealth of the world wide web. Will we be able to adequately respect equity of access and privacy under mandated filtering policies? I guess I’m skeptical, but I also understand that filters are improving, that too many websites, if publicly displayed, would create a hostile work environment, and that some communities are asking for filters.

Certainly this electronic historical genealogy of information is more vast and more accessible than ever before, even with filtering? And what does filtering do about the power to aggregate, correlate and communicate with one another?

I am relatively new to graduate school; mostly I’ve been in retail as a bookseller, not a librarian. Never a librarian, actually. School is fantastic so far, and I am enjoying almost everything about it. Being so new, though, I am still working out what I feel about the profession. I would love to hear from anyone else who is more informed or just plain opinionated about filtering.

Before I go, I wanted to share a few links with you that inspired this post. First, there’s Brandi’s Metroblogging Chicago post, The Jolly Library, from two days ago. She provides a link to the Act itself, as well as to a Boing Boing article about the whole affair. I’m also reading some ACLU pages that discuss similar issues. The first one is: ACLU Lawsuit Seeks Access to Lawful Information on Internet for Library Patrons in Eastern Washington (11/16/2006). Also, there is a letter, a Warning to Kern County (CA) Libraries About Using Internet Filtering (1/21/1998).

(If this isn’t interesting to you at all, you can watch Andy Kaufman and friends sing about Old Macdonald’s Farm. Really, it’s worth it.)

Blogging is so strange…I used to be a radio DJ in a small city & it kinda felt like this. Almost.



Anonymous History

May 13, 2007

“History is a magical mirror. Who peers into it sees his own image in the shape of events and developments. It is never stilled. It is ever in movement, like the generation observing it. Its totality cannot be embraced: History bares itself only in facets, which fluctuate with the vantage point of the observer.”–Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command