PLA, day three: “The big ideas of the Internet were beautiful”

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Tim Wu at PLA

Tim Wu is a lawyer who clerked for a Supreme Court justice, worked at a Silicon Valley startup, then moved into academia; he’s now a professor at Columbia and a columnist for the New York Times. But if his name rings a bell for you, it’s probably because he coined the term “Net[work] Neutrality” in 2003.

The fundamental idea of Net Neutrality, said Wu, is that the user should decide what the internet is. The carrier (Internet Service Provider, or ISP) shouldn’t get in the way. ISPs should be “a medium in the true sense of the word medium, respecting the wishes of those on each side.” They should be “faithful agents” providing reliable service, not blocking, discriminating, or censoring.

The federal government adopted Net Neutrality as a rule under the Bush administration, but the Trump administration killed it (though it’s likely to return under the next administration). Why were they focused on that? “Free flows of information can be very threatening to those who wish to consolidate their power. The censorial instinct remains very strong.”

The next issue threatening our democracy, said Wu, is the “crisis of attention.” (His newest book is called The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.) “Our attention has become our scarcest and most valuable resource…[and] when you have a purely attention-based business model, the competition runs to the bottom. It’s not who can be the most accurate, it’s who can capture attention.” 

As Cory Doctorow says, if you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product. Wu put it differently, as he described an 1830s New York newspaper publisher’s idea to re-conceive the audience as a product to sell to advertisers. The advertising model, he said, is “the harvesting and resale of human attention.” And this is the “original sin” of nearly all of the Internet’s giants: they “embraced advertising as their only business model and tied themselves business to attention harvesting.” (Wikipedia, as a recent New York Magazine article pointed out, is an exception.) This, despite Google founders’ early recognition that “advertising-supported search engine will always be biased, always serving two masters (users and advertisers) and cannot be expected to produce reliable results.”

The dark consequences of this setup are clear, with new examples in the news every day (most recently, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal). Sites and platforms based on an advertising model are driven to capture people’s time and attention, and to learn more about them in order to offer targeted ads – or to manipulate them.

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“We’re at a moment in our democracy…information flow has changed how this country is governed.” What can be done? What should be done? Wu asked. Whose responsibility is it, who are the trustees of our time? He argued, “The largest information intermediaries of our time…must start operating with a true sense of fiduciary public duty or face regulatory consequences….The goal of aiming for truth is something that the tech industry needs to learn right now. The time has come.”

For the final two programs of the day, I indulged my YA-loving side. First was “How to Adult: Teaching Life Skills to Teens” presented by Kayla Marie Figard of San Mateo County Libraries and Elizabeth “Biz” Tanner of the County of Los Angeles Public Library. Their “How to Adult” programs teach “life hacks,” i.e. necessary life skills like healthy cooking, public speaking, car maintenance, etiquette, time management, organization, stress management, mindfulness, finding a first apartment, money management, self-defense, first aid, laundry (and sewing and mending), and the list goes on!

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A slide from “How to Adult” shows a word cloud of some popular topics

The presenters provided many short activities (tongue twisters for public speaking; a “multitasking is a myth” task) and a very handy program planning worksheet (see below). Some of their workshops for teens were single events, while others were a series. Nearly all included food, a surefire way to boost attendance at any program. Librarians ran some workshops, while others were conducted by outside presenters. With some research, you can find willing partners, like county/city/town departments, credit unions,  and local businesses; some presenters may come for free, others may charge a fee.

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Program planning worksheet

To decide on the topic(s), ask teens what they want to know! Think about your own young adult life – what did you wish you had known, and what surprised you? Talk to teachers at local high schools – they will know what school does(n’t) offer and where students’ knowledge gaps are.

Along with planning and running the programs, the presenters discussed evaluation and measuring outcomes – required for grant-funded programs, but good for every program. They suggested: (1) determine anticipated outcomes, (2) ask: do the programs teach teens something? Do they feel better prepared for adulthood? (3) conduct pre- and post-program surveys to assess growth.

This was an excellent program: the presenters were good speakers, and came prepared not just with their slides, but with copies of their worksheets, planning documents, examples and activities from their workshops. A+!

For the very last PLA program, I went to the YA Crossover, or “AAP Crossover Appeal: Books that Work for Teens and Adults.” Despite the program’s title, it didn’t really focus on the “crossover” aspect so much as the teen aspect, except in the sense that some of the audience had read some of the authors’ books as young adults, and still loved them.

Luanne Toth of School Library Journal moderated the panel of four authors: Ally Carter, Carolyn Mackler, Gayle Forman, and Ashley Woodfolk. Woodfolk is a debut author (The Beauty That Remains), and the other three are further into their careers. Mackler’s most recent book, The Universe is Expanding and So Am I, is a sequel to The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things (a Printz honor book in 2004).

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Here are a few quotes and paraphrases from the panel:

  • “I write about young people but I don’t write young stories” -Gayle Forman
  • “Young people are given license to feel your feelings.” There’s this idea that as you age you don’t feel things as strongly/intensely. You do have to moderate your feelings but you do have them. Satisfying as a writer and a reader. -Gayle Forman
  • “A lot of what happens in high school shapes your adult life….And you don’t really get it until you get older.” YA writing is cathartic because it helps revisit and dissect what happened & what you felt. -Ashley Woodfolk
  • “The world would be a lot better if we all read more broadly and more representatively.” -Ally Carter
  • “Libraries are our outposts in every corner of the country” (some places don’t have bookstores or people can’t afford books) -Ally Carter
  • “Encourage people to read everything…a kid might want to read something you won’t expect they want to read. Find out what a kid wants/needs” – Ashley Woodfolk
  • “Every book is a mirror. No matter how different somebody is from you, there is still an emotional through-line.” -Gayle Forman

And that is a wrap! See all PLA 2018 posts here. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to go to this conference, and I think I made the most of it, attending a variety of sessions and programs. I do wish I had a Time-Turner and could have been to even more. If you were at PLA, or followed along via a great blog or Twitter thread, please share your favorite links!

 

 

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PLA, day two: Because fake news is harmful to your health

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.My new favorite #LibrariesTransform item

My first event on Friday was another stop at the PLA Pavilion for “Early Literacy Enhanced Storytimes: Intentionality is the Key” with Saroj Ghoting, an early childhood literacy consultant (earlylit.net). Presenters packed a lot into these 20-minute sessions; Ghoting addressed the challenge of keeping adults engaged during children’s storytimes, and provided several specific examples* to make storytimes more interactive. She also noted the different types of interaction during a storytime: librarian-children, librarian-adults, children-adults, and adults-adults. Adults value time with and advice from each other, and if they’re engaged during stortytime, they’re more likely to do the same activities with kids at home. Adult-child interaction also supports rich language development for children.

*Examples included books that lent themselves to two call-and-response parts, like Too Much Noise (kids make animal sounds, adults say “too noisy!”), The Cow Loves Cookies (adults say “but the cow loves…” and kids say “cookies!”), and Jump, Frog, Jump (adults say “how did the frog get away?” and kids say “jump frog jump!”).

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Slide from Saroj Ghoting’s presentation: song lyrics to “Cell Phones,” to be sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”

After the “Enhanced Storytimes” session, I went over to the Children’s Book Buzz on the other side of the exhibit hall to hear about more upcoming children’s and teen titles, but left in time to get to the first morning program, “The Path to U.S. Citizenship Can Start at Public Libraries.” Laura Patching from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) spoke first, giving a short history of the service and talking about its work in and with libraries: sending community relations officers to do naturalization workshops, including mock interviews; setting up “Citizenship Corners” or “New Americans Corners”; and the “Bridges to Citizenship” program. Community relations officers will visit any library; find your local one by e-mailing public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov.

Next, Tiffany Nardella and Nate Eddy from the Free Library of Philadelphia (“Start here. Go anywhere”) spoke about their work welcoming new Americans in the library, in partnership with USCIS and with other partners, like the Office of Adult Education and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. And Michelle Gordon of the Fresno County Public Library in California said that naturalization ceremonies in libraries are “the best thing that I do,” and “If you don’t work with USCIS yet, do it! It’s worth it.” She suggested inviting local representatives to these ceremonies – new citizens are new voters! Elected officials might come or not, but it’s nice to invite them.

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A tweet from the program “Eliminating Fines and Fees on Children’s Materials to Create a Win-Win for Your Library and Your Community,” during the same morning time slot as the citizenship program.

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After the citizenship program, I followed a tweet from @NYPLRecommends and chatted with the hosts of the New York Public Library’s “The Librarian Is In” podcast, Gwen Glazer and Frank Collerius, who were delightful. I rarely listen to podcasts, but I am sure I would enjoy theirs.

I ate my lunch sitting on the floor and listening to the Adult Book Buzz, and then it was time for the afternoon programs. The first one I attended was “Refuting the Idea of ‘Neutral’: Supporting Civic Engagement & Information in the Library,” presented by Amy Holcomb, Amy Koester, and Mimosa Shah, an enthusiastic team from Skokie, IL. As the title of their program indicated, they refuted the idea that libraries are neutral: “If your library adheres to the Library Bill of Rights, you are not neutral.” Being neutral, however, is not the same as being nonpartisan; the library can have a stance (being in favor of access to good information) without taking a political position.

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A tweet from the “Refuting the Idea of ‘Neutral'” panel

The Skokie Public Library started a Civic Lab to promote and facilitate citizen engagement by increasing awareness of issues, facilitating conversation, and providing access to quality information. They hoped to achieve several goals: to have patrons participate, not just passively consume; to offer more active, participatory experiences; and to have patrons engage with information so they feel confident and can make decisions based on that information. “We don’t want to get them to a particular point of view, we want them to have a point of view. If you have bad information, whoever gave you that information is making up your mind for you.”

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The Civic Lab is a pop-up event in the library four times a month, addressing topics planned in advance as well as those that are timely and topical . Library staff at the pop-up station facilitate discussion between patrons, and each pop-up has a banner, display crates, media, books, and an activity. They suggest having “multiple access points [e.g. reading, listening, viewing]….There isn’t a right way to engage, it’s whatever is comfortable for the patron.”

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How do we define “civic engagement”? Slide from Skokie.

Skokie also offers news discussion groups, which are scheduled events about quality news sources and how to navigate through the many news outlets. These cover news literacy in general as well as specific topics. They employ the reflective listening model for discussion.

There were also some good strategies for engaging kids and teens, from gamification (activities and questions that are more like trivia than quizzes) to clever program titles (“The media wants your brains” for teens). To get adults – patrons and staff alike – engaged, have them bring experiences from their own lives and family histories; “help people understand how much they can learn from each other.”

“The library is a place for difficult discourse.”

Programs like these can be equally inspiring and intimidating; you might want to do something similar in your library, but you’re already doing many other programs and displays. “Don’t add ‘civic engagement’ [on top of] everything you’re already doing,” the Skokie team suggested; rather, “Apply a civic engagement lens to what you’re already doing….Do a civic engagement audit of what you already offer.”

During the Q&A after the panel, someone asked, “How do you keep it to a discussion and not regurgitation of strongly entrenched opinions?” The Civic Lab team advised, “As a facilitator, restate what they’re saying and then ask to hear from someone else.” You can say, “You obviously believe this very strongly. How did you come to hold that belief, what are your sources? Tell me more, where can I find more information?” They said, “Opinions are fine, we want people to have informed opinions based on facts.”

“We want people to have informed opinions based on facts.”

For the final program of the day, I went to “The Information Needs of Citizens,” presented by Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center. Lee Rainie is a regular at library conferences; he is an excellent speaker, with excellent data which, it just so happens, supports the value of libraries. Although the country is experiencing “a crisis of truth, a crisis of trust, a crisis of democracy,” there are a few institutions and professionals that the public still trusts: librarians, teachers, and the military.

It’s no surprise that someone from a “fact tank” still believes that “facts matter.”

  • “Facts are the atomic unit of truth.”
  • “Facts drive outcomes for individuals and societies.”
  • “Facts underlie justice” – they are the cornerstone of democracy.
  • Facts are democratic. Facts are tied to trust – when trust grows, good things come from that. Trust in a culture binds people together, to overcome vulnerability and uncertainty. Trust cements interdependence.

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Librarians, Rainie said, are in the vanguard of people who are going to help us solve these problems. Libraries are a free, open, trusted institution for learning. Research shows that people are glad that libraries are still here and providing access to information, helping bridge the digital divide and navigate the information environment online, and serving people and communities and on issues like net neutrality.

Lee Rainie from Pew Research Center
Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Center with a slide about what people say they want/need from libraries and librarians

The next library will be built around five new insights:

  1. People seek personal enrichment and entertainment in new ways
  2. People seek knowledge and reference expertise in new ways (reference questions have gone down in number, but up in complexity)
  3. Some groups especially need and want access to technology through trusted institutions (library as tech hub, tech support, wifi)
  4. Learning is a social process, an ongoing process (learning happens in networks)
  5. Where they fit on these continuums (PDF: ALA’s Confronting the Future report) physical/virtual, individual/community focus, collection/creation, archive/portal, everything for everyone/specialized niche
Figure 1 from Confronting the Future report
Figure 1 from the ALA Confronting the Future Report

Rainie concluded, “A day spent with librarians is a better day.”

Catch up on the two previous PLA blog posts if you missed them, and stay tuned for one more.