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.

Sense-Making and Symbolism

We've all experienced the ease of understanding that comes when we're engaged, as much as the difficulty of learning something we don't find meaningful.    The notion that we are more invested in learning what interests us surely comes as no surprise.

And it just might be built into our DNA.

On one of my recent browsings at S. Walter Stewart I found The First Idea how symbols, language and intelligence evolved from our primate ancestors to modern humans, by Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker.  It is a powerful read, presenting a new theory of language acquisition and learning that is intertwined with a novel perspective on the evolution of human cognitive capacity. 

The crux of their argument is that language and learning is rooted in our human capacity to be emotionally affected by the world around us. 

The authors reject as unsatisfactory the Big Bang theory of language acquisition  (e.g. Chomsky and Pinker), which implicates sudden genetic mutations during the Pleistocene as primary forces in the development of language.  One such mutation created a change in human anatomy: the descent of the larynx, permitting the kind of vocalizations we now call speech. The Big Bang theory ties this ability to speak to the notion of language skills, reducing the acquisition of language to a set of innate heuristics set free from their physical constraints.

Greenspan and Shanker, on the other hand, present a compelling argument that our linguistic abilities have little to do with the noises we make, both now and in our evolutionary past. The authors draw on research with infants and children across a wide spectrum of developmental ability, as well as work with non-human primates, to show that our ability to employ symbols and provide meaningful signals to others is grounded in an emotive response to our environment which can be expressed in many ways, not just speech.

In other words, we developed language skills so we could communicate about what matters.

Knowing the importance of an emotional investment in learning means that culture and behaviour matter more than ever, especially in the presence of developmental disabilities.   This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the authors' research: positive outcomes for children and families living with Autism and other developmental disorders.

All this certainly seems to reinforce the importance of being passionate in what we do, reflecting the wisdom of the cliche "follow your heart" 

You can read more about Shanker's work at York University's Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative

Lessons from Literature Part 2

I have always been an avid mystery fan.   Of the few books I actually purchased for myself as a child, Agatha Christie mysteries easily made up half (the other half being works by C.S. Lewis). 

Poirot and Ms Marple fascinated me in their seemingly quirky ability to ferret out the many truths of a situation - the story is never just about "who done it" - though of course they each had a method, coupled with discipline and discernment.

Method, discipline and discernment.
In many ways these words also describe the research process. No surprise, really. The art of detection, be it in a fictional character or the real world, is a process of research, figuring out what is possible within the context of any given problem.   To quote Holmes himself:
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Just a perusal of the Wikipedia page of Sherlock Holmes quotes demonstrates this recurring theme across many stories. 

I personally find this mystery/puzzle motif a powerful motivation for learning, and I've used it for years when sharing my knowledge of business research tools and techniques (presentation at CLA 2010 here).  By imagining the process through this lens I think it demystifies unfamiliar content by placing it in a familiar framework that combines 1) fun and games on the one hand,  and 2) existing skill sets on the other. 

So much of research and reference is figuring it out as we go - Librarians don't know all the answers, but we have a method, coupled with discipline and discernment, to know how to look for the answers.   It is about the unique relationship between what is known and what is needed, and creating that improbable bridge that links them.

Are you being served?

Recent events in Toronto have significantly raised the profile of Public Libraries in Canada.   Alexandra Yarrow has a great summation of and rebuttal to much of the press over the past few weeks at her blog Only connect.  CBC Radio's interviews with  Moe Hosseini-Ara, with Markham Public Library, and Ken Roberts with Hamilton Public on The Current provide powerful messages about the power of the Library to change lives. And just today Brian Hutchinson  at the National Post weighed in, declaring Public Libraries eclectic and vital.

Indeed, they are, and in ways that can be quantified and enumerated and used to bolster support.

This was Ken Haycock's very essential point in his 2 blog posts on July 25th regarding the brouhaha.  Advocacy that appears self-serving will do more harm than good.  Instead, craft advocacy messages that
  • show an ability to connect with patrons; 
  • are based on data that documents unique value; 
  • result from relationships with decision makers; 
  • reflect an understanding of priorities; 
  • offers solutions, not problems.
Librarianship is about service. The thing about service is that it is never about the one doing the serving.  I would even argue that the best service is the one that is invisible - what you need is there, when you need it, because some one else is anticipating your needs so well.  
It is this kind of service that turns a dining experience - regardless of the food - from merely good to sublime.

Back here in Toronto Councillors themselves have already foregone a salary increase and cut office budgets.   While many will call this purely symbolic, the fact is real dollars are involved, dollars that hopefully will be used in some front line service activity.

I'm not sure any library of any kind can ever achieve that seamless perfect service. Inevitably the choice of one resource denies the possibility of another. I have purchased many books simply because my Library doesn't have them, or has only a single non-lending copy.   I have read yet many more books I did not even know existed because of all the materials my Library did acquire, and it was just there on the shelf waiting for me.
And I think this is where we find the beauty, power and value of Public Libraries - with so much to learn in such a big world, the Public Library brings it down to scale.

Even down to a single shelf:

what do you want to learn? you'll find it @ your library! 
This was taken earlier this summer at S. Walter Stewart. Titles include Project Orion (nuclear explosions 629.4753 DYS), Professional Microsoft Robotics (robotics 629.89 JOH) The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live it (home economics - rural 630 SEY) and Apples to Oysters (cooking, Canadian (630.971 WEB). 

Books: antique technology for a new age

A blog post on Information Today recently posed the question: is the future of books and libraries intertwined? 
The question frustrates me in the same way that the never ending pursuit of some word other than Librarian frustrates me: it is a false problem, scattering our focus away from what I think are more useful ponderings. Surely the question is rhetorical (“no, they are not!”), and therefore of limited use in discussing what the next incarnation of Libraries might look like. 

If we were to consider the relationship between publishing and Libraries, well, that would be a much more fruitful discussion. 

It provides us a broader, and I believe more appropriate field of inquiry.  As much as the book came before publishing, the advent of publishing (via printing technology) changed the role of the book forever. It was no longer a rare item of great value representing human artistry and skill, but rather the artifact of a mechanical process that enabled the broader transmission of ideas.   Libraries are about what's between the covers; Librarianship is about getting at the knowledge, whether it is found in a printed book or otherwise.  

I took a course on publishing during my MLIS studies at U of A. It simply made sense to me that I should understand an industry and process that is so fundamental to the work of Librarianship. I grew into Librarianship just as Google was getting started. Web search had been around already for a number of years, and of course electronic databases had been a mainstay of Librarianship for decades. We considered the antecedents to the publishing environment in the late 90s, pondered the future.  I doubt anyone in that course could have accurately foretold the extent to which electronic access to content would take hold: Google barely existed; the thought of Google Books within a decade would have seemed audacious.

Despite the News Corp and McGraw-Hills of the world, publishing generally is not a high margin industry. Navigating the fickle and changeable marketplace of ideas has always been difficult. It has its quirks, as do most industries. For instance, the handling of remainders: unsold titles sent back to publishers from retailers, ensuring the publisher faces the responsibility for a misjudging demand.

And As Andrew Pettegree notes a number of times in his fabulous tome The Book in the Renaissance, it has always been this way. The publishing industry, not just of books but of pamphlets, legal notices, and newspaper broadsheets, all of it emerged very directly from Gutenberg's revolutionary invention in the mid 15th century.  Publishing, after all is the process of deciding what to print, and how many; and then investing considerable cash outlay against unpredictable future earnings.  Presses were expensive to set up; recouping this investment by printing saleable materials was essential.  Gutenberg was the first of many printers to learn the hard way, facing financial ruin because of publishing decisions gone awry.
Pettegree's Book is a delight to read. I am life long bibliophile, and still prefer paper to a screen.  To the extent that I discovered this book while snaking through the stacks at my local TPL branch in search of serendipity, it is entirely possible I would not have read it otherwise.  
what to do when a book gets stickynoteitis? or is it sticky note plague?

Having said that, The Book in the Renaissance sheds light on the publishing environment today.  The early printing industry faced many hurdles, not least of which was availability of paper. The absence of linen or other appropriate rags for paper production in Northern Europe slowed the spread of printing establishments, as importing it was prohibitively expensive. 

It equally gave me tremendous appreciation for the realities of publishing today. As publishing and the trade in ideas developed, it did so based on which ideas sold the best. Despite the humanism of the day, the spread of the printed word was driven purely by economics. The best selling titles, then as now, were not of an intellectual bent. Printing succeeded at centers of trade, not university towns. 
And with good reason, as there was certainly money to be made. As early as 1466 the value of stock of a Paris book merchant was equivalent to the annual income of a leading nobleman of France. Keep in mind, however, these books were unsold.
Many more printers and publishers failed than succeeded in the first 400 years of our relationship with the book; there was similarly halting success in the emergence of formal or institutional Libraries.
Ultimately the humanist ideals were achieved via the market place anyway. If looking for causality in history, here's one that seems quite clear to me:
Following the development of the movable type printing press, printing indulgences became a significant source of steady income for printers; indulgences were easier to print therefore it was easier for the Church to use them to raise funds; it was abused enough to provoke the ire of one Martin Luther who in turn used the same technology, but in the vernacular, driving a wave of literacy and increased demand for reading materials in addition to tremendous religious upheaval and a wave of exploration and discovery. 

Hmmm  . . . accessible materials and a captivating idea drove the early spread of literacy. Interesting. 

Every industry has it's cost drivers, some primary element without which the industry does not function. Beyond basic start up costs, for printing and publishing the main driver was  the cost for the paper itself; experienced workers would also factor in, with compensation for content developers being a mere blip in the overall scheme. 

Only very recently have content developers become a more significant cost driver, resulting from a combination of international copyright, and growing demand for materials of all kinds,  educational or otherwise. Now, of course, content is king. Creators of content command significant sums of money to share their thoughts with the rest of the world, be it via a best selling novel, investigative journalism, research and advice from consultancies, or a blog.  Just as the cost drivers have shifted, so have the conditions around codifying and sharing knowledge: 
the physical barriers to production represented by an older information technology ie a book are replaced by technological barriers to access in the newer information technology.
Clearly the printed word is still with us, still instrumental in facilitating the sharing of human knowledge and experience. The legacy of the book, of print and publishing will live on: not every idea survives.  Just as always, content has to be findable, has to be accessible, has to captivate and drive us forward. Just as always we will need some kind of technology to enable access.  For millions of people around the world, including me, this will happen at and through our Libraries.