Published December 19, 2008
book reviews , ideas , libraries , values
I just finished Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death – another classic (from 1985). Postman offers a critique of television as a medium for communication. Essentially, he’s arguing that the way in which messages are structured for television turns all public discourse into entertainment. And, of course, entertainment is by its nature is superficial; therefore, we may lose (have lost) the ability to reflect and think deeply. He presents some convincing examples from all corners of society (politics, religion, education, etc.).
I am amazed at how accurate his observations are over 20 years later. In fact, I think some of these arguments could be easily applied to the internet (but that’s for another time).
One thought that stuck out to me was a rather small section where he talks about the concept of freedom to read (a cause often championed by the library community). What I found most interesting is that he downplayed the idea that “Freedom to Read” was about countering censorship or giving equal opportunity to controversial ideas. Instead, for Postman freedom to read was viewed as a freedom from television (or perhaps in our culture we might say a freedom from media technology altogether).
Certainly, our traditional values related to freedom to read should remain in tact, but perhaps there is something to this “freedom from [insert media]” idea too.
Published December 18, 2008
book reviews , pop psychology
Last week I read, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book: Outliers. As you might suspect it has much the same approach as his earlier books (The Tipping Point & Blink). His latest offering is about the nature of success – and, in typical Gladwell fashion, he details why we’ve got it wrong.
We like to believe that if you work hard success will come (the American dream), but Gladwell is proposing that our equation isn’t quite right. Maybe the people who have experienced incredible success (business professionals, intellectuals, athletes, rock stars, etc.) aren’t born with vastly superior abilities, they simply made more of the opportunities that they were given in their lives.
I think Gladwell is popular because he’s easy to read and he’s a good story teller (although at times a little repetitive). He’s generalist too – which I can certainly identify with – so he tends to paint with a very broad brush (e.g. one or two psychology studies must describe some meta-trend for the entire Western world). I’m sure that there are a considerable number of counterarguments to his thesis, but for me that doesn’t matter. Outliers actually got me thinking about some of the assumptions I’ve made about success, so in that sense it was a great read (a success?).
I suppose there is the temptation to be disappointed that the American dream may not be a reality, but I think there’s a reason for optimism too. We all are given opportunities – Gladwell is just arguing that it matters what you do with them.
Published December 6, 2008
ideas , libraries
As I mentioned in my previous post I’ve been reading Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Even though some of her examples are a little outdated (the book is over 40 years old now) there is a clear thread throughout the book about design and its impact on people.
In a nutshell, Jacobs discusses how urban planners and architects design cities, parks, and buildings to be used in a certain way, and then people go and use the spaces in a completely different fashion. What is interesting is that the designers never seem to learn (at least according to Jacobs). Instead of paying attention to how people actually interact with the spaces, the planners keep repeating the same mistakes.
While Jacob is talking about physical places, as I read this book I can’t help but think about virtual spaces. I think a lot of her discussion can be applied to the success (or failure) of online social communities (Facebook, MySpace, etc.). However, I think we could apply some of these same principles to a virtual space that’s a little closer to home – the library website.
In fact, I think there are some frightening parallels between Jacobs’ city planners and our own library website design teams. We put up websites and systems (sometimes insanely difficult systems) and then tell people how to use them. We get frustrated when they can’t figure out our “perfectly organized” sites, but we never stop to actually see how they are using our virtual spaces.
Perhaps when we design library websites we should actually think of it as building a community (diverse and dynamic) and not as a one-size-fits all exercise in taxonomic rationality (efficient, but anemic).
I’m just starting to think about this… maybe there’s a more formal paper in here somewhere…
Published December 1, 2008
Tags: leadership, libraries
I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). What I find interesting about this book is how she uses examples of urban design, city planning and architecture to explain the broader sociology of human behaviour.
Last night, I read an anecdote that got me thinking about leadership in our profession. Jacobs recounts a story from a woman who worked at building communities in the East Harlem projects. This woman told Jacobs: “These projects are not lacking in natural leaders… They contain people with real ability, wonderful people many of them, but the typical sequence is that in the course of organization leaders have found each other, gotten all involved in each others’ social lives, and have ended up talking to nobody but each other. They have not found their followers.”
It’s the last part of her statement that resonates. These people have not found their followers, and I wonder whether we are at risk of doing the same thing in the library profession (or any profession for that matter). Certainly, we spend a lot of time focusing on the patron (customer, user, whatever word suits), and we talk a lot about leadership, but I wonder if we have a full understanding of followership. Everyone wants to be a leader, but do we know when it’s right to be a follower?
Is there a risk that we will become an insular (ghettoized?) profession of leaders – a profession without the followers to actually make an impact? Are we there already? Do we dare ask? Hmm….