Contact me

These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Taoism defined

Of course, the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. But as I often say I am a born-again Taoist (none of that alchemy and immortality stuff), I thought I should jot down my current thinking about what I mean. For me, Taoism is less a religion than a philosophy.

Taoism is the cultivation of an attitude. That attitude has at least three facets:

* peace - a mind that knows how to be quiet.

* potency - the ability to dip into a well of endless possibilities.

* appreciation. By focusing the attention -- zooming in to the particular, zooming out to the general field - we can find both balance and beauty.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Second Person Present Tense

If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale or when we exhale.
—Shun Ryu Suzuki

I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized who was telling me that.
—Emo Phillips

Recently, I read a profoundly insightful science fiction story by Daryl Gregory, "Second Person, Present Tense." Wonderful writing. I recommend it.

I won't try to summarize the tale, except to say that it tackles a profound insight into consciousness.

Forget id, ego, and superego. Replace them with the Parliament, the Page, and the Queen.

The Parliament refers to the idea that your consciousness is not one voice. It is a committee. It is made up of several different physiological or biological systems, all vying for action. At some point, they achieve consensus. This is the moment in which, for instance, fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) reveals that the muscular system is sending the signal to move your hand.

And then, the Parliament sends out a message that a decision has been reached. The part of your consciousness that carries that message is the Page. That event FOLLOWS -- does not PREcede -- the motion.

To whom does the Page report? The Queen.

The Queen is your sense-of-self, your consciousness. And she raises her scepter and pronounces that We Shall Now Do Something (a signal from the brain itself) -- which is already underway.

To repeat: this has all been demonstrated in the laboratory. This awareness, the Queen, is not in fact the one deciding anything. But it is she who assembles a narrative. She imposes a story around the action.

SELF is a story that is always running backward, snatching up and arranging actions that have already been taken. The effect then needs a cause -- and that's the job of the Queen. She imposes reason, she confers meaning, retrospectively.

I found this a remarkably lucid and illuminating way to look at how consciousness really works.

The ee!book is coming!

So I've been thinking about e-books, and the rise of self-publishing. The short version is this: libraries of all types need to have systems enabling them to "publish" and manage content directly. As I've oft-stated, there were 2.7 million self-published titles (mostly electronic) in 2010, about 9 times the output of commercial publishing in the same year. This trend will continue.

So now let's say that your library does have such an infrastructure for the management of digital content -- as my library does. I anticipate that there will be at least four kinds of content coming our way:

* crap. It takes real effort to become a fine writer. A lot of what will be written won't be very good. But that's always been true. It disappears into the ages -- or at least, it has until now. (Do we need to weed e-books? Or will we finally have the ability to preserve every title forever?)

* OK stuff. There will be many works that do a reasonably good job of telling a genre story, or capturing a memoir, or reporting in a journeyman-like way on some event or non-fiction topic.

* great works. This is what inspires me. Somewhere, right now, a definitive new voice is working away. That voice will lift us up, and change the world. It just might be your local library that discovers him or her.

* the evil e-book. Let's call it the ee!book. The idea is that the ePub format -- the emerging standard for e-books, not only has text, but audio, embedded video, and external links. That last one is the problem. 

This is inevitable: there will be books that are (a) 80% plagiarism (stolen from other works), (b) 15% links to live pornography, and (c) 5% malicious code. 

Librarians have often spoken of books that take over your life, that are so compelling, so much better than your own life, that you are swallowed up by them for a while. 

But I'm talking here about books that clean out your bank accounts, then e-mail, or tweet, or otherwise transmit themselves to everybody you know.

My whole philosophy of librarianship is that I think we're supposed to anticipate change, and then get ready for it. So how do we cast our electronic acquisition nets to capture the silvery new fish of user-generated content, but avoid the poisonous jellyfish of hackers?

Automatic link checkers, completely scanning an e-text before we let it into our catalog, is one strategy. But trust me: we'll need more than one strategy to combat Spam 2.0. The ee!book is coming.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Your brain on fiction

This New York Times piece has some pretty interesting stuff that librarians have said for years. And now, science proves it.

For instance, "...individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Internet Bubble

So the problem, as detailed in The Filter Bubble - What the Internet is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser, is that Google "personalizes" your search results to the point where you get less and less of the real world, and more of the things you already know, like, and agree with. That's pleasant, of course.

An alternative is the intriguing search engine DuckDuckGo. Recently, it teamed up with the Linux Mint distribution to replace Google as the default search engine. You can read about that decision, and about some characteristics of the alternative engine, in this blog post. Some key features:

* no tracking, so more privacy
* no ads. Your search history isn't feeding sales.
* no "bubbling." That is, no matter who you are, or where you search, you get the same results.
* the ability to submit a search through the engine to other platforms -- Youtube, Flicker, etc., and even Google itself. Worth a look.

School library advocacy

Some months ago, I had the privilege of facilitating a meeting of the Colorado Association of School Libraries (CASL). The topic was advocacy -- and it was urgent. I asked them this question: suppose you were running a great ship, with all kinds of important operating tasks. Suddenly, that ship is the Titanic, and it just hit an iceberg. Would you keep doing the same tasks?

School libraries in Colorado are in trouble. Despite wonderful research showing just how much they contribute to academic performance, school librarians are being laid off, replaced with volunteers or technology people, and generally being dismissed from a progressive educational strategy.

The good folks of CASL came up with a host of ideas for communicating differently, in a way that is more focused on the people who make these funding decisions. To that end, they've put together a website -
caslsurvive/ with a bunch of ideas, and immediately useful tools, to get the word out.

Definitely worth a look.

Carson Block at SXSW

Great article here about "the fate of libraries." It has at least two great quotes:

Carson: “I’m not sure why publishers are so afraid of libraries,” he said. “We pay."

Reporter Harry McCracken: "We’ve always needed libraries; now, more than, ever, libraries need us."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Philadephia paper on ebooks

So far, this article by the Philadephia Inquirer's editorial board is the best I've seen on the subject. In particular, I liked this: "Librarians rightly argue that they are spending dwindling public resources on e-books, so they should get a break. Part of their job is to help build a literate society, which is essential to a strong democracy. They also make a strong case that libraries generate business for publishers."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I'm a slut (the musical)

Sometimes, only a song will do.



I can also recommend "Drunk Dial," by this same wonderful group, Reformed Whores.

eBook platform gaining traction

I am impressed with the good folks of Califa, some of whom I met at mid-winter's ALA conference. Their willingness to adopt and adapt our own experiment is a good thing for libraries. See the story by Michael Kelley here. This isn't the only thing they're working on!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Library authors petition

I ask for your assistance. If you are a librarian, or have written a book for the library professional audience, what do you think of this idea?

* We create a petition, circulated among all professional library publishing houses.

* The petition states our strong desire to donate an e-book copy of works we have written to a library of our choice. I'm not asking to "lease a copy to a library through a third party." I'm petitioning, perhaps in violation of contracts that were framed a long time ago, to give ownership of a copy to a library that can check it out to one person at a time, with DRM-management. Or without, if you have strong feelings about that.

* We assert, as authors and librarians, our belief that books should be owned and managed by libraries. We protest the disappearance of ownership.

* We assert, as authors and librarians, that it's absurd that a book that costs nothing to print, bind, and distribute should cost MORE than print. It should cost less. Yet, again, the idea is not to demand that publishers charge less. It's that we believe we should have the right to donate a copy of our works to a library.

* We assert, as authors and librarians, that having our works in libraries helps people find us, and that matters to us.

* We assert, as authors and librarians, that we want our works to endure. Libraries preserve the memory of our culture.

* We assert, as authors and librarians, our intent to adopt an addendum to any contract with a publisher, our desire to sell copies of our works to libraries. Not lease. Sell, under the doctrine of first use.

I recognize that some of us don't HAVE e-book versions of our books. But we could create them, couldn't we? And that might be a useful skill to develop, don't you think?

We would be the first group of authors that I'm aware of to set a new expectation for the agreement between authors, publishers, and libraries. And why wouldn't we be first?

I think this just might bring some attention to e-book issues not only within our field, but in the larger business world, and perhaps as important, the world of public opinion.

Please post your thoughts below. I'm interested not only in the substance of the petition, but how we might begin to publicize it.

Columnists on education

First, Thomas Friedman writes on the negative correlation between natural resources and national educational attainment, here.

Second, economist Paul Krugman writes about the surprising attack on education by some elements of the conservative right, here.

Both are well-written, provocative, and insightful. Coming after my attendance at a Douglas County School Board meeting last week - an experience that was alternately hilarious and appalling - I think these columnists are on to something. The folks who would dis-invest in education are avidly pursuing precisely the things that will most harm our nation, and its citizens.

Back to that school board meeting.

* There were numerous attacks by the board against unions. My favorite was the railing against the travesty of "taxpayer funded subsidies" to unions, who then (horrors) had the temerity to spend some of it on political lobbying. This remark came from an oil and gas lawyer, who -- is this possible? -- perhaps is not aware of substantial public subsidies for his industry, which assiduously lobbies the federal government for preferential treatment. Are we to believe that such activity is fine only for business?

* There was considerable crowing about the preservation of a bond rating, saving money in interest on renegotiated debt, and establishing the principle of "not needing to go back to the voters for more money." Good financial management -- and renegotiation of debt is an example long employed by the school district -- is certainly praiseworthy. But the firing of teachers, the staggering increase in class size across the district, is not something to be proud of. If I followed all the numbers, a $20 million reduction in spending earned $254 thousand in bond savings. Yay?

One public commenter said, "schools are a business." But that's wrong. They have to be run well, certainly, but success isn't measured by the bank statement. Public schools are not for-profit agencies; they are mission-driven. That mission is the education of our young. Does anyone believe that having fewer teachers - far fewer than is necessary to balance the budget - is an intelligent path to that end? Apparently a lot of people do believe that unions are all that's holding us back -- an assertion already disproven here in Douglas County by charter schools with waivers from the state.

* The appearance of a "pimp," a "Sugar Daddy for education." This was a guy dressed up in orange velvet pants and cape, white plastic platform shoes, and a broad-brimmed big hat with a long feather. This is the kind of low-draw, high-entertainment stunt so beloved by the conservative radio aficionado. As this guy strolled around with a mock check from the federal government, his buddy ranted into the microphone. The point? Um. Or maybe there wasn't a point. It didn't seem to matter.

Who needs evidence when you've got attitude?

Garry Trudeau on mandated rape

He said, “Texas's HB-15 isn't hard to explain: The bill says that in order for a woman to obtain a perfectly legal medical procedure, she is first compelled by law to endure a vaginal probe with a hard, plastic 10-inch wand,” said Trudeau.  “The World Health Organization defines rape as ‘physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration — even if slight — of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object.’ You tell me the difference.”

I don't see one.

History of Information Organization infographic

Got this on Twitter from Stephen Abrams. Pretty interesting...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Gateway Mesa photos

I walked today along the Gateway Mesa, an amazing trail east of Castle Rock. These photos are from my little Palm Pre. Except for the last one, they mostly look better in the smaller versions.

First photo:


Second:


Third, the grasses, like blonde hair against the old volcanic rock.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Futulele

This idea is so brilliant: combine an iPhone and an iPad (totaling over $1,000 for the pieces) to make a $35 ukulele. Read about it here. I think you have to buy another connecting piece, though.