Learning, the act of gaining knowledge, is a craft unto itself. It starts with questions - the what ifs, how abouts, whys, . . . leading from the unknown to the known, through inquiry, experimentation, travel, and of course pure accident.

This is about how it happens in my life.

Oh no, another L word

Attending TEDxLibrariansTO last Saturday was an inspiring experience on a topic near and dear to my heart: Librarians as Thought Leaders. While I'd never really put it that way, I figured I knew what was meant.  I  eagerly anticipated the day, having only dim notions of what to expect.

I loved the format: brief, fascinating talks touching topics that leave you wanting more from each one, rather than feeling overwhelmed by it all.

Shelley Archibald and Fiacre O'Duinn were consummate hosts, ensuring good food, good conversation and a wonderful opportunity to meet interesting people.  All told, a great day.

It brought to mind another inspiring experience regarding leadership and Librarianship: The Northern Exposure to Leadership Institute. I was successfully nominated by CASLIS for the 2007 Institute. After I came home I took some time to reflect on and write about this great opportunity:
I really didn’t expect attending the Northern Exposure to Leadership Institute to be a humbling experience. Invigorating, yes. Inspiring even. Maybe just a little bit cheesy. Yet as I sat on the floor on our last day at Emerald Lodge and looked around the room I found myself feeling rather, well, small. For those who know me personally, that is a truly unusual feeling for me.

So there we sat in a circle on the floor. Every other time we had been in this room it was full of chairs and tables and food and flipcharts and bags and books and oh so much more. Now it was just us: participants, facilitators, mentors, organizers. I realized as I sat on the floor that I was looking at leaders, everywhere I turned! I had not learned how to be a leader at NEL; no, I had learned to recognize leadership in all its diversity. Wow.
NEL is a focus on the essence of librarianship. It is about what we do and how we do it. It is about recognizing our ability to facilitate change through facilitating access to the right information at the right time.

This was my daily bread when working as a Librarian in the corporate sector, where every day in some way large or small, the work I did had an positive impact on the work of others.  In serving the information needs of my colleagues I helped make change happen.  

In fact, one of the books that came my way during my NEL experience explicitly addressed the idea of servant leadership.  Facilitating the work of others in a way that they don't have to think about how or where, and just do their own "what", that is a form of leadership.  But please do not confuse servant leadership with notions of servility: leaders are sure of their presence, they know how to claim, own and share their contributions. 
Librarians struggle with notions of leadership and leader. This was expressed at NEL as well as at TEDxLibrarians, where talk turned at times to who are leaders in Librarianship (or Libraryland, a la Amy Buckland).  Along with it came that same expression of discomfort with the idea that a Librarian would aspire to be a LEADER, and that many of our current leaders work outside of Libraries (consultants, vendors etc).

Which brings to mind another similarity.
Librarians tend to conflate our whatness with our whereness. Talk about Librarianship easily, but erroneously, slips into talk about Libraries and hierarchies and infrastructure . . . and no one really notices. This was the case at TEDxLibrariansTO as much as it was at NEL.

What I wrote back in  2007 was 
It is almost as though the institution in which many librarians work becomes the entirety of the profession. Thinking about librarianship becomes a reflection on the boxes in which we work, rather than on the work we do.
Special librarians do not have the luxury, or is it the burden? of an institutional filter when thinking about librarianship. No, we in fact must reference and consider factors outside our workplaces and so are forced into bigger picture thinking.
I do think that special Librarians have an inherently different view on Librarianship. The focus has always been on what, how and who, rather than where; but ultimately, a focus on service.
Considering that the Special Libraries Association is now over 100 years old, there is evidence not just for the long term proliferation of Librarians throughout the non-Traditional realm, but of also of a long term overt recognition that to practice Librarianship in these environments requires a strong network and a keen interest in engaging with and learning from a highly diverse range of professional colleagues.  Associations are always the result of the collective work of the members, giving of money, time and expertise in service to their colleagues, in order that their colleagues can serve in their respective workplaces. Such voluntary associations don't survive without satisfying some essential need, one people are willing to pay to have filled.

I made a low tech story board video for the TEDxLibrariansTO video challenge which was a lot of fun, (not sure if it is on the youtube channel? forgot to mention my own name in the video, see, so . . . anyway it is here, and sorry in advance for any nausea you may feel!)

In it, near the very end, I state that Librarians have the power and wisdom to lead from the unknown to the known. I think that is true in any area of human enquiry.  It is with human insight and intervention that our collective knowledge is made accessible for human use.  And this is as true today as it has been for over 4 thousand years.

Librarians are Leaders. It rolls off the tongue so easily, alliteration and all, and we can get familiar with 2 great L words at once.  Let's say it together now.  . .

Some Information Cannot be Ignored

I came across an interesting bit of research into how monarch butterflies navigate via NYTimes.com today.  In addition to being beautiful and excellent pollinators, monarchs are known for their lengthy north-south annual migration. Given that it takes multiple generations of monarchs just to make the trip even one way, scientists from different disciplines have long taken an interest in these tiny marvels.

We've understood for some time that monarch's use a combination of sun light and the earth's magnetic field to travel between their winter and summer homes. Since this ability is passed on from one generation to the next along the migration path, a genetic factor was pretty much a given, right?

And lo, not only have they identified the gene, but it appears humans are also predisposed to be influenced by magnetic forces around us.

Some how I find this possibility unsurprising.

Don't get me wrong. It is absolutely fascinating to me that we can look at our world the way we can, opening up the possibility of learning. 

It's just that, well, when the collective WE learn X for the first time, it's not the same as creating the circumstances that led to X being there for us to learn.  We've found another missing piece of the puzzle. When it is in place we say: oh, of course! 

See, we live on a planet dominated by magnetic phenomena. How could anything, living or otherwise, not feel it's presence in some way? 
Our earth today is a function of a molten core acting as a super magnet which ultimately influences weather, along with earth shifting stuff like volcanoes.
But more than that: earth's core has literally flipped itself around, along with our planet's poles, a number of times in earth's history, creating crazy weather unlike anything we've ever seen, along with  increased geothermal activity (did you know every piece of pottery ever fired records the earth's magnetic field? Same, of course, goes for molten rock as it cools, hence a very good geologic record . . .)

And if it isn't our core, there is that fiery ball in the sky, which has it's own internal roiling to deal with.  The occasional storm on our Sun far away wreaks havoc here on earth as the solar radiation slams into earth's magnetosphere (courtesy of our core), creating geomagnetic storms.  Our reliance on satellite communications is at risk even from one of our sun's more normal storms.   Fact is, our fate could be more like poor Venus, a planet thought to once have an atmosphere like earth's; that is, until the sun's increased radiation a few billion year's ago and literally blew Venus' atmosphere away.

Magnetism is a force we all understand, both as a metaphor and a real world information process. It can be made to push or pull, or both at the same time; and with remarkable outcomes, from the speakers at a rock concert to hanging artwork on the fridge.  

At a more life size scale, every one of us generates an electromagnetic field: technology beware! We may not give magnetism much thought, but it clearly cannot be ignored. 

Wisdom of Crowds, Corrupted

Hosting the Olympics in 2010 appears to have had a lasting effect on the beautiful city of Vancouver.  Throughout the NHL playoffs during home games the crowd belted out O Canada with such fervour, as though all that practice last year left them wanting more.  The crowds in the streets showed again and again that enthusiasm for the team mattered more than the local liquor store closing early.
Until Wednesday June 15, 2011.  That night, the wisdom of the crowd was corrupted.
There is little doubt in my mind that the riots in Vancouver after Game 7 would have happened regardless of the outcome of the game itself.  At the same time there is no doubt that the majority of people in the streets that night were appalled by what happened around them, only wanting to be safe.  Of the remaining minority, some of them showed up with intent, while the remainder are now wondering why they behaved so badly asking, "what got into me?"  

At some point in the evening wisdom gave way to noise and chaos, a la Shannon and Weaver's Information Theory.  Large crowds with even the best of intentions present great cover for any one up to some mischief. Think of the Black Bloc or radical cheerleading for example. 

The similarities between Toronto during that stupid summit in 2010 and game 7 in Vancouver are interesting: businesses closed, streets blocked to traffic, designated areas for congregating. Mind you the differences are all the more so, with bad behaviour correctly predicted resulting in a huge police presence, perimeter fence, and many businesses closed out of fear in Toronto.  It seems Vancouver was operating on a more hopeful model, one that turned out to be unfortunately incorrect.

What strikes me as more instructive is what happened the day after.  I don't recall news items about Torontonians coming out to help clean up post-protest.  I looked for and found very little official commentary from the protest community condemning the hooliganism taking place in their midst. Granted, much of the media was legitimately focused on police and policy abuses as well as the protesters.

Still: the response in Vancouver is one of a community rejecting such behaviour, while grappling with the recognition that it came from that same community.

If there is anything to be learned at all from history it is that there is always some one grasping for more, who will take or make any advantage to get it. It is found across all ideologies, professions, religions, nationalities and cultures throughout time, with perhaps the exception of Buddhism.

Vancouver Police may have missed the mark the other night; however, the approach taken in Toronto was as useless as the current approach to airline passenger screening when it comes to security. 
The Wednesday before the Summit last year I bought an Estes model rocket kit from a store at the corner of King and Bay streets in downtown Toronto, one block north of the much vaunted Security Fence. 
I was literally walking around in an area with probably more police officers than regular folks with a rocket launcher in my bag.
How's that for security? And before you scoff, consider this:
with some scissors, a knife, glue, tape, batteries and a mere 60 minutes you can build a rocket with an ejection module that will fly 1200 feet high and, depending on the wind, travel equally far.
As long as you can prove you are 13 years old you can purchase one of these kits and they are quite inexpensive.  These rockets are loads of fun to build and fly, and would be a great gift for Fathers Day.

It's what we do, not where we do it

Back in the day when I was pondering what to do with my very interdisciplinary yet very general BA in History, one option I seriously considered was Journalism. I really enjoyed the process of finding the story, when I had a chance to try my hand when writing for The Phoenix at Okanagan University College (now UBC Okangan).

This, of course, involved asking lots of questions, and not just in the sense of interviewing some one else. Rather, it was a question that would eventually give rise to the story, which in turn would involve asking more questions in the form of interviews.

There are a great many similarities between Librarianship and Journalism, including aspiring to such lofty goals ensuring an informed and educated citizenry, which is so fundamental to a well functioning democracy.

In other words, we're both all about content: 4 ways content management systems are evolving & why it matters to journalists | Poynter.
So much to learn, so many places to learn it!

Cost, Worth, Value and Markets

Being a Librarian, and one who firmly believes that any answer is only as good as the question that prompted it, I think the value of pretty much anything, including Information and those who serve it, can be found at the intersection of "What does it cost?" and "What is it worth?"  

Cost, of course, is not purely a monetary concept.  As much as economists get so many things wrong, the concept of "opportunity cost" is a useful one.  If I spend a dollar today, what purchase might I be foregoing tomorrow? If I play this video game for the next 4 hours, I will not be cooking dinner or studying.   Pretty much every thing comes down to this, or that.
As to "what is it worth?", well, that's a bit more nebulous.  I find the following instructive: the collapse of the planned economy model a la the USSR, what happened to Cuba post cold-war, and emerging issues in China, with entire shopping centres being built despite the lack of tenants or shoppers.
In other words, worth is variable, but far from arbitrary.

Somewhere in the analysis of cost and worth we find value.

I've mentioned before about my interest, both academic and practical, in how information goods, and thereby the services and people who work with such goods, are valued.   This is an important question, with implications for the continued existence of a (reasonably-) well functioning,  informed and engaged civil society.  Libraries that live in a more public sphere (public, academic, school) have historically been stalwarts in demonstrating how information is powerful only when it is accessible. They have amassed goodwill as a result.  The thing about goodwill, though, is that it is an abstract concept; you can't take it to the bank, it won't last forever, and can be eroded. 

Libraries, going forward, will need proof.  And since we're talking Value ie Cost vs Worth, we're talking about figuring all this out in some kind of marketplace.

I am intrigued by the hypocrisy found in almost every knowledge work environment, including Libraries, in regards to valuing information goods:
wages should reflect the vital and important contributions made by knowledge workers in some theoretical "here", (and they are never high enough!); 
meanwhile . . . .

the knowledge products (books, databases, subscription/fulfillment services) used to serve clients "here" acquired from some theoretical "there" are all over priced and "those people' should know better!*
(*this last bit a sentiment perhaps more common, but no less troublesome, in Libraries receiving some kind of tax dollar funding.)

Really truly: the idea that anyone in any work environment is above question as to contribution, activities, cost/benefit or otherwise is nonsense.  Leaving aside the utter ignorance of the school board lawyers in LA vis a vis teacher librarians, any response akin to "how dare you question the value of my work!?" is already starting from a point of dubious value.  

And really truly #2:  if you do great work and change lives, wouldn't you take advantage of EVERY OPPORTUNITY to tell people about it?

I've now paid over due fines to Toronto Public Library on 2 different but equally insightful books touching on this rather broad topic: 
The Price of Everything solving the mystery of why we pay what we do, by Eduardo Porter (ISBN 978-1-59184-362-7)
Moral Markets: the critical role of values in the economy, edited by Paul Zak (ISBN 978-1-4008-3736-6).

Porter's work is truly fabulous.  Chapter 6, titled The Price of Free, could be cribbed as justification of any kind of mediated information service.  While the proverb "the best things in life are free" is a satisfying appeal to heart and soul, I'd put my wager on "you get what you pay for" or "if it's worth having it's worth working for" when it comes to anything bigger than the warm fuzzies. I think Porter would agree.

The collection of essays in Moral Markets is a bit more work, but worth it.  Zak, along with the many other authors, riff on Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments as the essential companion to The Wealth of Nations. As much as the latter embraces the power of markets, the former insists on paying attention to the role of each individual in creating the wisdom and success of markets.   Homo Economicus would be as foreign to Smith as it is to us.

It is a shame when a profession wholly dedicated to helping people craft better questions, find better answers and generally be empowered by the breadth and depth of information available to them, seems in turn unwilling or unable to use those skills to ensure the profession is sustainable via the identification, documentation and communication of that empowerment.  Goodwill must give way to good evidence.

The fact is, every Library of every kind is operating in a dynamic marketplace dominated more by choice than quality.   Each Library must make quality the best choice by living it every day.

This is a reminder?

Dear Mr. Chief Statistician of Canada,
I would kindly like to suggest you purchase a dictionary. The missive you recently caused to be delivered to my address, complete with secure access code, is NOT a reminder, despite your subject line (bolded even!)
Subject: Reminder -- National Household Survey
You see, Mr. Chief Statistician of Canada, every dictionary definition I have found for the word reminder is along the lines of "cause to remember".  That would require that I simply forgot to complete it, or was unaware of it, following as it did on completion of the Census.

I, like you, know the difference between Census and Survey

So let's stop pretending. Considering you are essentially asking me for a favour, can I suggest less of a "we're watching you" tone?

May 30, 2011
Our records show that we have not yet received a completed National Household Survey questionnaire from you. This survey questionnaire was provided to you online at the time you submitted the 2011 Census questionnaire. Please complete the survey now by doing one of the following: 
  • Complete it online at . . .
  • Call 18773082777 if you need a paper questionnaire . . . 
By law, your responses will be kept confidential
If you have recently completed this survey, please accept my thanks. It is important that you participate in this voluntary survey so that your community has the information it needs for planning services such as child care, schooling, family services, housing, roads and public transportation, and training for knowledge and skills required for employment. 

Thank you for your cooperation. 
It would have been hard to get that VOLUNTARY part any further down in the letter, Mr Chief Statistician of Canada. It could only have been after all that bumph about apple pie and fuzzy kittens . . .

We both know that Statistics Canada can be a bit slow getting around to analyzing data once you get your hands on it. You'll still be releasing 2011 Census data by the time you are ready to do the next one. That's just the way it is.

Your data might eventually be able to say something about the state of affairs in Canada in 2011. But when?

If those community minded sentiments meant anything I would not be writing to you today.  If you had sent me a Census form with all those questions I would have happily completed them.

Which raises the bigger problem, going back to the difference between the Census and this Survey: discontinuity with historical data sets.  The old Long Form captured data that proved useful in a range of planning and development activities at all levels of government; the time lags for analysis were there, it is true. But the continuity of the data over time gave it strength, so that researchers could have confidence to use it in exactly the ways you outline,  Mr. Chief Statistician of Canada. 
Your new survey, on the other hand, will be little more than a snapshot for a long time to come.  I know your people have been pouring over the methodologies trying to figure out how to make this work.  We'll see.

There is no substitute for good, raw data. Just like with processed foods: the more ingredients on the label, the further you are away from the good stuff you need. 

I know you have a tough job to do, Mr. Chief Statistician of Canada.   I bet you'd much rather have been working with that tried and true Long Form.  Maybe you have dreams of perfect data. 
But please don't send me any more reminders.

We both know, it's just a survey.