A Technical Services Librarian’s Comments on Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You”

Overview of The Filter Bubble

Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You (2011, Penguin) is an overview of the effects of the current trend of algorithmic personalization on not only search results and information feeds online (particularly Google and Facebook), but on the psyche of internet users everywhere–and of course, on democracy.

In a personalized world, we will increasingly be typed and fed only news that is pleasant, familiar, and confirms our beliefs–and because these filters are invisible, we won’t know what is being hidden from us. Our past interests will determine what we are exposed to in the future, leaving less room for the unexpected encounters that spark creativity, innovation, and the democratic exchange of ideas. –Publisher description (full)

I found the book after watching Pariser’s TED Talk (Feb. 2011) on the topic, which is effective and to the point. The book though, is worth the read as it takes the argument beyond the surface, and into the depths: Pariser willingly explores the dangers of this trend to our democracy.

Commentary

Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You got me to thinking about how librarians should respond to the Internet trend towards personalization, and particularly the role of technical services librarians in partnership with instruction librarians. I believe that information literacy education, and perhaps a degree of information activism, are key to responding to personalization in such a way that users are able to meet their information needs online, and that also encourages online innovators to develop the Internet responsibly. Users must understand how they are affected by personalization online, so that they can seek information widely, in an unbiased way and push for services that serve them rather than passively use those that seek first, to advertise to them.

Library users like Google, and expect to use tools like Google (if not Google itself) in order to find the information they need, whether for work or school, home or play. Thus, they need to understand how Google and the other online platforms they use on a day-to-day basis work in ways that affect them. Librarians and other information professionals have a clear teaching responsibility in this regard. We can also advocate for a learning environment in which teaching information literacy is understood to be important. Further, we can partner with information technology specialists and innovators to make sure that the online search environment empowers individuals and thus fosters democracy.

Teaching information literacy, according to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), “enables learners to master content and extend their investigations, become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning.” And having that control is key. Once control is taken out of the hands of the users, it becomes harder for information needs to be met. It is noteworthy that control can be hidden behind complex technology, coding languages and algorithms at work in online information retrieval systems. In this environment it becomes harder to see that control has been lost at all. Control and information literacy are linked.

An information literate individual is able to: Determine the extent of information needed; Access the needed information effectively and efficiently; Evaluate information and its sources critically; Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base; Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose; Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally. (ACRL, 2000)

How can an individual become information literate if they are not able to meet the above criteria defined by ACRL because the technology involved and search process itself is not transparent enough? Or because we as information professionals aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching information literacy? Or because we aren’t pushing back, and working to change the online information landscape so that it doesn’t become a danger to democracy?

In recognizing the overlap between information literacy and information technology (concepts such as fluency with information technology have been proposed to express this), the effectiveness of information literacy can be improved (ACRL, 2000). Still, I can’t help but wonder if there is a disconnect in the library landscape, between technical services and public services and the teaching of information literacy / information technology fluency. It would be interesting to study whether or not this is so. Because IT and e-resources often land squarely in the domain of technical services, is there a lost opportunity to collaborate with those in public services who are in charge of instruction?

Links

ACRL: Information Literacy Competency Standards in Higher Education (Jan. 2000)
National Research Council. Being Fluent with Information Technology (1999)
Ted Talk: Beware the Filter Bubble (Feb. 2011)
New York Times Review (June 2011)
The Filter Bubble website
Google Books Preview

Ask Your Senator to Support the SKILLS Act

The Time to Support the SKILLS Act is Now

I received the following letter today from American Library Association president Molly Raphael. The SKILLS Act is the Strengthening Kids’ Interest in Learning and Libraries Act which is part of the upcoming Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization. I urge you to show your support for school libraries, school librarians, and ultimately, our future–the students who learn information literacy and love of learning in school libraries, by contacting your senators and representatives.

Letter From Molly Raphael, ALA President

Dear Colleague,

As you may know, I recently formed a special task force to combat the threat to school library programs. More on information on it can be found here: http://ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/news/pr.cfm?id=8155. Across the country, students are attending schools without effective school library programs. Without access to school libraries, students are missing out on college and career readiness programs, digital literacy instruction, and personalized support from state certified school librarians. It is impossible to disregard the impact that cuts to school library instruction programs will have on future generations.

The fact is that what happens to school library programs affects libraries of all types. As such, I’ve called on librarians of all types to participate in this task force. And now, I’m calling on you to get involved. The time has come for an “all hands on deck” approach to this crisis in the making.

In the coming weeks and months, you’ll be hearing more about ways you can get involved to help school library programs. In the meantime, I urge you to contact your Congressional representatives for two very important reasons:

First, urge both your senators and representatives to send their education staff to the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Congressional Briefing, “Education Reform and the SKILLs Act: An Analysis of Twenty-First Century School Libraries and Their Impact on Career and College Preparedness” on Monday, October 17th, from 10am-11am ET in Room 121 of the Cannon House Office Building Washington D.C.

The briefing will cover how the SKILLs Act supports and sustains 21st century school libraries. For more about the AASL Briefing: http://ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/news/pr.cfm?id=8244

Secondly, while you’re contacting your senator, ask him or her to co-sponsor S.1328, the Strengthening Kids’ Interest in Learning and Libraries (SKILLS) Act that ensures that every school is served by a state-certified school librarian and the school library program has access to the resources students need to become lifelong learners. The SKILLS ACT bill will amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 regarding school libraries, and for other purposes.

Currently, there are only five co-sponsors of the SKILLS Act in the Senate. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee will be writing federal education legislation on October 18, so the time to act is now.

If you do not know how to contact your legislator, you can visit ALA resources to get involved:

1. Go the ALA Legislative Action Center by clicking here:

http://capwiz.com/ala/callalert/index.tt?alertid=54125686&PROCESS=Call+Now

2. Read over the talking points and type in your zip code to find the phone number for your senator’s office (you will see additional talking points). You can also be connected to your senator’s office by calling the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121

3. Call both senators and ask them to co-sponsor the SKILLS Act using the provided talking points and your own stories about why school libraries are so important.

4. Fill out the feedback card or email twegner@ala.org to describe what you heard.

These small steps you take right now are crucial to maintaining a voice for school library programs. But this is only the beginning. In the months to come, we will have important work to do: working together, I hope that we can avert this potential crisis, and in turn, raise the visibility of libraries of all types to even greater heights. I look forward to working with you.

Sincerely,

Molly Raphael
2011-2012 ALA President

Updates as of 10/29/2011 – Videos & Briefing Summary; ESEA Reauthorization

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Slacktivists Unite: Does Your Facebook Profile Picture Matter?

So, many of my Facebook friends have taken up the call to raise awareness about domestic violence against children by replacing their profile picture with an image of their favorite cartoon character from childhood. This act is supposed to evoke the childhood memories lost by child victims of domestic violence. It is a noble cause and should be supported.

However, my twitter stream has shown that some recognize a problem with this type of social activism via the weak ties social network that is Facebook. It is one thing to agree with the message of a cause, and spend ten seconds changing your profile picture or status message. However, it is entirely another thing to feel incentivized to donate time or money, or even take bigger risks for the sake of a worthy cause. Here are some examples of tweets pointing to this:

@BookishJulia Julia Skinner
Not changing my FB picture. Raising awareness is only helpful if it transfers to meaningful action, rather than an excuse for inaction.
@pnkrcklibrarian Punk.Rock.Librarian. [Lisa Rabey]
Just posted on FB why I think the change your profile pic is dumb. How many guesses how many people will de-friend with that statement?
Both tweets got a lot of responses. Lisa Rabey elaborates in the following exchange with Ian Clark:
LR: @ijclark ANd I get irritated when people “support” a cause but don’t acutally do anything to SUPPORT a cause. Also: http://on.fb.me/e9bUVu
LR: @ijclark Because most, actually a lot, assume profile->cartoon pic swap “teehee let’s remember childhood” not “swap to stop child abuse!”
IC: @pnkrcklibrarian I’m right with you there….changing your photo isn’t on its own going to achieve anything. At least if they donate as well
I was discussing this topic with friends last night, and it put me in mind of a couple of articles that I’ve read recently: The first, Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, by Malcolm Gladwell, compares strong ties social network triggered activism like that seen in the 1960s civil rights era with that of weak ties social network triggered activism on Facebook and Twitter; and the second, How to: Turn Slacktivists into Activists with Social Media, by Geoff Livingston, is about taking “slacktivism” and transforming it into activism.
The worry seems to be that people who engage in slacktivist tactics will believe they are doing enough just by changing their profile picture or status. And there is undoubtedly truth to that. Although not based on research, and only an observation, it is completely possible that the idea young people have of what activism is and can be, what it can achieve, has changed.
I think what is important to remember is that not everybody is an activist, and not everybody who is an activist is an activist for all causes. However, this does not mean that massive low level engagement, or “slacktivism” won’t spread the word and trigger a few people who are more engaged with an issue to a higher level of activism, or at least spark a conversation (this instance on Facebook with cartoon profile pictures certainly has triggered a conversation on Twitter, although it isn’t a conversation about child abuse or domestic violence). Still, might not this be worth it, if one person more is inspired to act?
So, what can you do? Visit one of the following websites, and learn about domestic violence against children. Contribute your time and energy to the cause. Or, if all you can manage is a tweet or status update, let others know where they can go to make a real difference.
Children’s Defense Fund: http://www.childrensdefense.org/
Child Welfare League of America: http://www.cwla.org/
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: http://www.ncadv.org/

 

Midterm Election 2010: Have You Voted Yet?

Just a friendly reminder to get out the vote today.

Your vote matters.

How will your candidates support libraries, archives, and other cultural heritage institutions?

Beyond current access to information resources including books, music, videos, images, etc., information organizations support learning and information literacy as well as our enduring legacy.

If you haven’t already, get out and vote!

What do librarians “do” anyways?

Many librarians and information professionals must field this question. Actually, we are probably lucky when the quizzical look in a friend or relative’s eye is actually transferred to a verbal question, rather than remaining in the murky–and more often than not rather vague–conceptual territory of the mind. Honestly, after two years of graduate school, I still find the question a bit difficult to navigate. I don’t want to be overly-technical and abstruse, and at the same time I want to give enough detail to impart the import (and legitimacy) of the professional contributions of librarians and information professionals* to our cultural heritage.

So that is where I tried to begin the other day, when a co-worker (I work part-time in retail) asked me what it actually is that librarians do. Actually, the conversation began, when she asked if libraries ever housed photographic collections. She seemed surprised to find that they can and do, which is evidence of the preconceptions and stereotypes about what a library is, that abound. Many non-librarian friends of mine are so stuck on books as the sole domain of libraries, when of course, really any information object or resource type can be. And it seems to me that they often think librarians do nothing more than familiarize themselves with current publications–really that is just one aspect of the job of collection managers. Maybe a bit of bitter has rubbed off on me, though. Certainly, we are often specialized!

So, as I attempted to explain the role of stewardship as one of the many aspects of library and information science, I got excited when the response from my co-worker was, “That certainly is an interesting way to look at it.” I thought to myself, I sure am doing well, I’m showing her a new way to perceive of librarians and the job that we do! However, as we all have, I’m sure, experienced, “interesting” is such a loaded word, that can actually mean, “Oh! That sure is cool” or alternatively, “Hmmm, I’m not so sure about the legitimacy of that claim.” So as I started to continue, feeling really great about myself, and ready to move on to the other aspects of librarianship (preservation really is access, you know), she began to tell me a story. She described an assignment she had done for a college course, in which cultural heritage collections–I believe they had a choice of visiting a library, museum, or really any sort of special collection–were observed by students, and analyzed (and critiqued) as reflections of mainstream society, continuing to marginalize the marginal, etc., etc.

Now, as she continued to describe her experience, and the GLBT special collection that she visited, my heart was sinking, and I couldn’t hide this from her (I wear my heart on my sleeve). I found it hard to articulate both that she was right, that yes, libraries and other cultural heritage institutions reinforce a primarily Western-white-wealthy-straight male viewpoint, and that the profession is aware of this issue and that publications and professional associations have dedicated many pages and round table discussions to resolving (or at least to approaching) it.

I wish I had immediately agreed with her, and that I had then went on to describe the problems and subsequent changes to Dewey and other classification systems. But my brain kept ticking through another list of library realities: cut budgets, reduced library hours, hiring freezes, lost jobs, loss of expected grant revenue, and the proceeding general difficulty of actively engaging oneself to represent all of the underrepresented and marginalized.

Nevertheless, libraries, and others in the information industry such as publishing, do have a lot of power over just what is made available to the masses. The information life cycle is certainly not perfect. As a result, I would have to say that during these tough times, it is even more important for librarians to be vigilant, and avoid the easy and passive approach to our work. We must remember that human rights and democracy are an important aspect of the idea(l)s of our profession.

I recently read a chapter by Kathleen de la Pena McCook and Katharine Phenix, Human Rights, Democracy, and Librarians, where passive vs. active librarianship is explored among other aspects of the social responsibility issue. It took me back to my first semester at SJSU SLIS where in the course “Information and Society” I had the opportunity to look at this issue. I find that I am so glad that I have come back to it again.

*I will refer to all information professionals–librarians, archivists, consultants & the like–as librarians, for convenience sake. However, this may be part of the problem, as the word “librarian” is so evocative of “books” which may well reinforce stereotypes and further preconceptions.

de la Pena McCook, K. & Phenix, K. (2008). Human rights, democracy, and librarians. In Haycock, K. & Sheldon B. E. (Eds.), The portable MLIS: Insights from the experts. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.