First impressions of Library and Information Science

Week 1 of LIBR 200, “Information and Society”, has begun. I dove eagerly into our textbook, “Foundations of Library and Information Science” by Richard E. Rubin. Since we don’t have in-person meetings for interaction and discussion, instead we’re required to post to an online discussion forum about what we learned from our reading. And hey, here’s where I also like to post about What I Learned!

What is library and information science?

The element of our assigned reading that struck me most was the open portrayal of Library and Information Science (LIS) as a field with something of an identity crisis. There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s all about libraries, “librarianship”, service, and education, or whether it’s more about information, technology, and data, perhaps prioritizing knowledge over people. Information technology obviously is a major help in providing services to library patrons, which is where the line gets blurred. But how much of this can be said to be “science”? How much of it needs to be? How much should LIS “compete” with fields like “computer science and business administration”?

It is a novel experience for me to see a field deliberately asking existential questions of itself. My prior education is in computer science and geology. Only rarely do questions arise such as “Why do we study computer science?” or “How can geology stay relevant to today’s public?” or “How should computer science distinguish itself from mathematics, engineering, and information technology?” I was astonished, and delighted, to see these big-picture questions being raised as one of the first topics in this introductory course. Indeed. Why does it matter?

Further, this is evidently not a side topic that attracts the attention of only a few individuals, but instead a pivotal issue in how the field defines itself. These questions convey a sensitive humility, in contrast to an academic arrogance that assumes whatever the field carves out for itself is axiomatically important. They can only arise from a community that genuinely cares about staying relevant, and therefore notices when changes occur in the needs and habits of its primary users or beneficiaries. Perhaps this is what distinguishes a service profession from a science or engineering field. I find the intense push to stay relevant and useful to be refreshing and motivating. One of the primary reasons I volunteer at the library is that it gives me a direct connection to helping people, something that is rather missing from my research position at NASA.

How should Library and Information Science be taught?

I was also fascinated by a historical discussion of how librarians were and are trained, and the evolving debate about what information and skills they need. It is a bit odd to be told, just as we’re beginning our studies, that the field itself isn’t quite sure what we should be learning. There is no agreement on a basic shared curriculum beyond a few core classes (organization of information, reference, foundations, and management (!)). But once again, I find this openness refreshing, and being presented with these questions up front feels like an invitation to get involved in the conversation.

I did wish that Rubin’s book were a little more updated. Despite being a 2010 edition, most of the heavily researched statistics (e.g., on media consumption or librarian demographics) come from 2004-2008, and I kept wanting to know what the current values were. Most jarringly, the section titled “Looking to the Future” relies primarily on a study published in 2000 (Rubin p. 110). How many of the six identified trends still hold? What about the future beyond 2012? A description of “the librarian of the twenty-first century” is quoted on p. 112 that comes from a 1985 paper (Debons, 1985)! These outdated references are at odds with the text’s intended message about the necessity of adapting to a rapid rate of changes in patrons and the workplace.

What spoke to me most was the view that “LIS professionals are educators, enriching the lives of others through their advice and guidance” (Rubin p. 119). That is what I would like to aspire to in my studies, in my time at the library, and truly, in how I interact with all whom I encounter.

Digital Dominoes

As part of Kids Building Things, we’re hoping to offer kids a basic electronics workshop. Our current plan is to show them how to make Digital Dominoes, which are about the size of an analog domino but, instead of physically toppling, they propagate using LEDs. The first step was for me to give the project a test-run to see how difficult it is and how long it might take.

At right you can see the parts (click to enlarge) that come in a kit of four ($20). (If you look closely, you’ll note that my kit is missing one red LED, so I’ll need to swap in from my own supplies to make all four.)

I carefully inventoried the kit and read through the assembly instructions. Then it was time to plug in the soldering iron and get started! Below you can see the empty board.

Below is the back of the board, after I soldered all 40 joints. The first tricky bit for me was the NPN transistor, whose three joints (the triangle cluster at top) were so close together that I accidentally soldered all three together. This was quickly solved with the solder sucker and re-soldering them separately. The other tricky bit was that due to a “bug” in the board, you have to patch in a connection between two pins from separate components by bending the soldered leg of one onto pin 2 of the IC. Soldering the leg to the already-soldered pin seemed to suck the solder up out of that joint, and I worried that I’d lost the connection. I used my multimeter to check connectivity, and happily all was well. I trimmed the extra leg bit after this image was taken.

And below is the final product! (I manually triggered one for the photo — they don’t actually interact in this configuration.) The black photoresistor at left receives light, turns on the red LED, and also activates the clear IR LED at right, sending out a signal for the next digital domino in a chain.

It took me 70 minutes to make the first one, going carefully, and only 25 minutes to make the second one. Excellent soldering practice! I can’t wait to make some more and play with them — and then teach kids how to make their own!

Will humans ever go to Mars?

I get asked that question a lot. I end up giving two answers: my own wishful dreams, and the less inspiring view of what I think might actually happen.

I recently came across a thoughtful article that agrees with my complicated views on the subject very well. It’s titled “Mission to Mars: Will America Lose the Next Frontier?” After noting the merits of the MSL rover, the article points out the downside of the project: by going almost $1B over its initial cost estimate, MSL has forced the delay or cancellation of other Mars endeavors. (I believe that the article’s note about the cancellation of the Mars 2016 mission is a reference to the 2018 MAX-C mission, a step on the path to sample return, which was canceled. We do have a mission slated for 2016, announced after the article’s publication: the Mars Insight lander.) Similarly, the article notes the terrible impact that the James Webb Space Telescope has had on NASA’s astrophysics program. JWST is NASA’s poster child for mind-blowing cost overruns. Initially estimated at $500M, it’s grown by leaps and bounds and is now estimated at $8B. Both MSL and JWST are sure to deliver rich scientific gains in their respective missions. However, I think this article is correct and fair to note the other efforts that have fallen by the wayside to ensure that these projects are complete.

The main message of the article, however, is the bigger view on what this means in terms of larger, longer-term goals:

“But today, thanks to a combination of budgetary stress, regulatory overkill, and an unfortunate lack of political skill at the highest levels of NASA, the Mars exploration program is in deep trouble. It may be a very long time before the U.S. space agency launches another significant Mars mission.”

Put simply, NASA doesn’t have the budget to send humans to Mars. “Regulatory overkill” refers to a strict intolerance of any NASA failure, no matter how large or small, which necessitates over-engineering (and ballooning costs). Unless something dramatic changes in NASA leadership, political weight, or budgetary windfall, it’s unlikely that our space agency is going to get us there. But all is not lost; Elon Musk is on the job.

Friendship in Frankenstein

The online Fantasy & Sci-Fi class has moved on from the darkly gothic horror of Dracula to the psycho-drama of Frankenstein. Here’s what I chose to write about. Peer reviews are very welcome. ;)

Victor Frankenstein: Friend to None

The desire for friendship drives the plot of “Frankenstein,” and the story is a tragedy not just because of Victor’s transgressions and poor moral choices, but because he never learns how to be a true friend.

Friendship is presented as an essential ingredient for a virtuous life. The monster states, “My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal.” Walton, who is likewise eager for friendship, opines that “such a friend [would] repair [his] faults.” Yet Frankenstein, who is blessed with friendship and support from all around him, does not improve from their influence, because he does not perceive its value. His own words reveal him to be an unrelentingly self-focused individual, obsessed with his own goals, desires, and pains.

The monster hungers for a friend whom he imagines “sympathizing with my feelings and cheering my gloom.” He is devastated when the de Lacey family rejects him. His hopes are raised when Victor agrees to create a female companion, then dashed when Victor destroys her. The monster responds by killing Clerval, Victor’s closest friend. Victor is enraged by this loss, yet he does not see the analogy to what he has done to the monster.

Most pointedly, Victor’s lack of regard for friendship aggravates the central conflict. An obvious solution presents itself: if he could not create a companion for the monster, he could have been that companion himself. It is clear that showing the least crumb of sympathy or affection for his creation would have radically altered the monster’s catastrophic course. Yet Victor never considers this route. Despite the major examples in his life (his father’s support, Elizabeth’s affections, Clerval’s dedication), he never learns to offer those things to another—and that is what makes “Frankenstein” a tragedy.

The Politics of Dracula

Quincey MorrisDid you know that there’s an American in “Dracula”? This was the book assigned for week 3 of Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, a course I’m taking online. The story is set entirely in Europe and England, but Bram Stoker managed to get in a jibe or two at America nonetheless.

Our homework in this class is to write a short essay (REALLY short: 270 to 300 words) that “aims to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course.” This instruction seems aimed at discouraging us from all writing the same essay on the same obvious major themes. Instead, we are to identify some interesting but potentially overlooked aspect of the work and analyze it for the benefit of our classmates—who are the ones doing the grading.

Here is my contribution (warning: spoilers!):

American Aggression Controlled

Quincey Morris stands out as the only American character in the story of Dracula, an otherwise European tale. He is the character we know least well. His name, “Quincey”, means “fifth”, as if filling out the complement of five men might be his main function in the story. He is the author of only one letter in the story, a message suggesting drinks with Arthur Holmwood and John Seward after their proposals to Lucy are rejected and Arthur’s is accepted. He is courageous, sturdy, and good with a Winchester.

However, as the only American, he also stands for America. On meeting him, asylum patient Renfield compliments him on the U.S.’s annexation of Texas, a move that Britain as a nation opposed. Renfield then speculates about further U.S. expansion, to a dramatic future in which “the Pole and the Tropics may hold allegiance to the Stars and the Stripes.” Though couched as approval, the statement issues from a madman. It is likely that this expresses a British fear, and criticism, of such American actions.

Stoker then systematically puts American aggression in its place. Renfield, who approved of those actions, is brutally destroyed. During the ensuing Dracula chase, Quincey the American is the only one of the five men to be injured, and ultimately, he dies as well. His death seems unnecessary and arbitrary from the plot perspective, but it could serve as a not-so-subtle statement about British superiority to America. Quincey is remembered for his dedication and selflessness (an instructional lesson for America?) and memorialized in Jonathan and Mina’s son. Jonathan reports “the secret belief that some of our brave friend’s spirit has passed into [his son].” Perhaps England can benefit from emulating America’s good qualities, once her troubling aggression is under control.

The note about “only one letter” is meaningful because the story is told in epistolary format, so the only way we learn of the characters’ activities is through their diaries, telegrams, newspaper articles, and letters. Quincey remains something of a cipher.

The full quote from the momentarily, and curiously, sane-sounding Renfield is, “Mr. Morris, you should be proud of your great state. Its reception into the Union was a precedent which may have far-reaching effects hereafter, when the Pole and the Tropics may hold allegiance to the Stars and the Stripes. The power of Treaty may yet prove a vast engine of enlargement, when the Monroe doctrine takes its true place as a political fable.” This comment seems to come entirely out of left field, and no one responds or follows up on it. It’s irrelevant to the story, so why did Stoker include it? I posit above that he wanted to make a subtle political statement and made Quincey his device. I cannot read his dead mind, but now I wish there were some way to ask him about it!

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