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.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Extraordinary claims

Way back in the 70s, I happened across the book "Worlds in Collision," by Immanuel Velikovsky. It was a thick, sweeping, highly detailed book in which the author, a noted scholar (psychologist) advanced a theory of celestial catastrophes designed to explain various world myths (like the flood, the plagues of Egypt, and so on). It was absolutely absorbing and fascinating. And virtually everything about it has been rejected by scientists, often savagely. As a work of comparative mythology, it was compelling. As a work of science, not so much. Even Carl Sagan took pains to refute most of its core claims (although he did chide academicians for their unwillingness to at least examine the claims first).

Well, I was taking a couple of long car trips, and checked out the 11-disc audiobook set called "The Lost Empire of Atlantis," by Gavin Menzies. Menzies, a former submarine commander, was decidedly not a member of the Atlantis-as-spacemen crowd. But he came to believe, and laid out a surprisingly wide dataset to support it, that ancient Minoans, from about 2500 BC to 1250 BC, were master navigators, the builders of Stonehenge and other "astronomical computers," and ran a trade network that linked Crete to Egypt, to India, to the Baltics, and (wait for it) to the copper mines of Lake Superior. The whole thing was pretty darn fascinating. A lot of it was about time periods I'd never read about before, and I learned a lot about the Bronze Age economy. I was particularly intrigued to learn about the deforestation of the Middle East and British isles to support industrial bronze-making (they needed the wood to make charcoal). Most scholars agree that the Minoans were indeed a remarkably advanced people, and probably were wiped out by an Atlantis-like catastrophe.

But after doing a little digging, some of the key premises of the story seem to fall apart. For instance, Menzies asserts that the so-called tobacco beetle (found in Egyptian tombs!) is ONLY found in North America. It turns out that's wrong. Much is made of the billions of tons of "missing copper" from Lake Superior, mined during precisely the period of Minoan hegemony, with the conclusion that only an advanced, European style smelting operation could have accounted for the disappearance. But archaeologists counter with three points  and scientists one.
  1. The mining had been going on for thousands of years before the rise of the Minoans.
  2. The calculations that conclude that the ore went "missing" are wildly exaggerated and inaccurate. Archaeologists don't think anything is unaccounted for.
  3. There are no remnants of Minoan garbage. All people leave garbage. It may be the defining characteristic of civilization.
Scientists refute the claims of the remarkable 99.01% purity of sunken Minoan copper, which "could only have come from the Lake Superior mines" with this: once copper is smelted, it's ALL about that pure, no matter where it came from.

There are many interesting commonalities between Velikosky and Menzies. Both were (Velikosky died in 1979) or are (Menzies is still with us) writers who don't come from the academy; they are outsiders. Both are bold and brilliant. On the other hand, both are a little on the unsystematic side, and tend to choose only the data that support the conclusions they've already reached. Like leaving trash, this too is a human trait.

I don't find it all that unlikely that the common wisdom about long ago events is mistaken. In my book, it's a miracle that we ever get anything right. I also find myself sympathetic to the idea that an iconoclastic outsider can shake things up and find the truth. But I should have realized that when a book ("Lost Empire of Atlantis") is admired by Glenn Beck (not someone whose intellectual prowess impresses me), it's worth a harder look.

As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Just because it's a good story (and both Velikovsky and Menzies tell one) doesn't mean it's true. Darn it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stevan Strain for County Commissioner

Here's a brief introduction to the top candidate for Douglas County Commissioner. Do NOT forget to vote in the primary!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Open government and libraries

It happens that I serve on an advisory committee for an IMLS grant on Open Government. Crafted by the good people at the University of Albany (NY), the grant is about encouraging public libraries to contribute to the open government trend.

That trend seems to comprise several other things:

- the rise of e-government. More and more governments use new technologies (mostly web-based tools) to make it possible to retrieve information that used to require office hours and staff assistance.

- Transparency. Tyranny and waste thrive in secrecy. If government operates in the light, at least in theory it should be easier to detect misbehavior. (On the other hand, it may be that we can have governmental efficiency, OR government transparency, not both.) On the other hand, transparency might lead to something more positive: citizen contributions, and if not efficiency, at least effectiveness.

- Civic engagement. And here the idea is that real citizenship or democracy depends upon a vigorous discussion between governed and governer. Open government means open to all. 

It seems obvious that public libraries could and should be a part of this broad initiative. Most of us are wired now, and already focus time and resources connecting people to information. Few organizations are as dedicated to transparency as an institution founded on intellectual freedom. Those are easy fits.

But civic engagement is the challenge. While most public libraries in America were founded and justified to further precisely this goal, the last generation of librarianship has mostly focused on individual, one-on-one transactions. I believe that's largely due to the Baby Boomer ethos: it was all about personal values and interests. 

But society is changing. One might argue that we've gone about as far in this me-centered direction as we can, and may be overdue for a swing back to some shared or community-centric ground.

Clearly, libraries have many assets that make them good potential hubs for civic engagement.

- Reputation. Librarians are generally held to be honest brokers, trustworthy information providers that aren't pushing any particular political agenda.

- Collections. We pay to buy books, subscribe to databases, and devote many hours to spending public dollars wisely. 

- Buildings. People come to public space. There's no admittance charge, and few transaction fees. Public programs are a draw.

- Traffic. We routinely rack up more visits than almost any other institution in town, and thereby surely touch more lives in a week, and more positively, than any other public institution. 

- IT infrastructure. The majority of our 15,000+ locations have broadband access, public PCs, and even general technical assistance. Indeed, ever since the public decided that we would assume the role of free Internet cafes, we have been tech support for the nation - a big new job that came without any big new sources of revenue.

But there are some obstacles, too.

- We need a new model, a conceptual framework for stepping into this area. At my recent meeting with grant advisors, it was clear that we still have a ways to go. What is the language we use when talking with our authorizing environment (public boards and voters) about the importance and value of supporting this direction? How will library leaders begin to map out strategies for ramping up to the task? When and how does the support for civic engagement move into job descriptions and duties? 

- Staff skills. Civic engagement isn't just providing public space, collections, or even public programs. We need librarians who understand community development, and have skills in facilitating public dialog. This isn't just about training, by the way, although that will certainly be necessary. It is also about recruiting people with these skills INTO the profession, and designing hiring processes that identify and integrate them into the team. In my experience, libraries are still using hiring practices that simply aren't up to snuff. We need real leadership.

- Other. There are, of course, many other concerns.

But as I heard loud and clear from Nancy Kranich, former ALA President (who was talking and doing something about these issues over 10 years ago): if we want to be successful in making our communities better (and we do, don't we?), we can't just talk about problems. We have to talk about our communities' shared aspirations. And we have to DO SOMETHING to make those aspirations real.

Again a nod to Nancy: the best thinking about the library role might be expressed as a continuum. 

- We inform. We are passive conduits to the resources citizens seek. That's not altogether passive, of course. It still requires scouting out the options, acquiring items of interest, organizing them, and making them easily accessible. 

- We consult. That is, we step from behind the desk, from inside the building, and find those community constituencies who would benefit from the resources we know about, but they may not.

- We lead. I don't mean by this that we tell our community what to do. I mean that we actively assess trends and opportunities, then reach out to people to convene meetings to get ourselves (libraries, but not JUST libraries) organized. We pay attention, we are ourselves engaged, and we are forces to help others get engaged. 

Again, why? To make the places we live better.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Saskatchewan Library Association

Back on May 2, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Saskatchewan Library Association. The location was Moose Jaw, a town of about 40,000. It has a nice vibe: a mix of historic buildings, a lovely old downtown park, and a number of live theaters. 

It wasn't a big conference - I suppose there were about 150 attendees. Most of the public libraries, I gather, are part of municipalities, and get their money from the general fund, and the province. Speaking at the opening event for the conference were the local mayor, and several provincial elected officials. All spoke highly of the importance of libraries. Privately, I've been told that this support is more moral than financial.

In general, it appears that the issues affecting libraries are much the same in North America. There is, nonetheless, a sense that although Canadians have funding woes, too, they don't seem to operate in the highly charged anti-government atmosphere of the states. I think this comes down to the fundamental premise of the United States (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) versus the Canadian motto (peace, order, and good government). Although there is currently a Conservative Prime Minister (Stephen Harper), Canadian Conservatives would pass for moderates here.

I came away again thinking that Canadians do tend to live up the stereotype I have of them: smart, very pleasant, and cooperative. Kind of like librarians generally.

The Moose Jaw Library was an interesting mix of old (a sort of Carnegie-era entry off the park), and new (a later addition that was fairly modern). Inside, it felt much like a good US library: a large, well-appointed children's space, a well-maintained collection, public computers. Upstairs was a meeting room. Attached was a small museum and theater. As is true of many US libraries, though, I didn't see a lot of merchandising: the collection is formal, spine-out. But it did have people in it.

My topic was ebooks, and I would say our northern colleagues are as thoughtful about this potentially disruptive change to our operations as anyone here. I hope to be able to get back to work with library boards and leaders up there again sometime.