Saturday, September 29, 2007

Behind every good woman....

The other night, I was all set to go to sleep early, and then I caught the last forty-five minutes or so of the latest Democratic presidential-candidate debate in New Hampshire. I'm sure there are lots of things to be said about this event, but I'll just talk about what really bothered me. First of all, half of the questions addressed to Hillary Clinton were about Bill Clinton - things he'd said and done, positions of his set up for her to disagree with. It really is pretty disgusting. I can't remember if they did the same thing with George W. Bush and his father, but I'm willing to bet it's more intense this time because...ding ding ding! She's a woman, and a former First Lady.

The last two questions of the debate, too, made me lose just a little more faith in the "journalism" of most television news. They were "What is your favorite Bible verse?" and "Red Sox or Yankees?" (the latter no doubt somewhat important to New Hampshire-ites). Still. Couldn't the first be rephrased by asking what the candidates think is the most important moral question for the U.S.? I guess they might have to get into moral specifics then.

Anyway, there's my nice disgusted reaction to that. As to the candidates themselves, it really is nearly impossible to get at real beliefs and potential actions in staged situations (which are the only places we ever see them).

Let's talk about library stuff instead - much more pleasant. Here's what I'm taking this semester:

Evaluation of Information. My last requirement. This is basically social science research methods for librarians, and sometimes it's pretty painful going (e.g., three hours about inferential statistics). Hopefully it will be somewhat useful to me in the future.

Database Management. Oh, math and logic, I missed you! I'm learning how to represent data and the relationships among them in a usable way. Extremely useful, and I get excited about it in the same way I used to get excited about diagramming sentences.

User Instruction. The teaching class. I love this class - what we talk about, how it's run. Even though I'm not going to be a teacher, I seem to keep coming back to the theory and practice of education. And even though I think I'd make a very bad teacher in some areas, information literacy and user instruction are subjects I think I can handle. I just read an article for this class on how students, increasingly, don't really care about doing real research and learning; they just care how they can get the highest grade with the least amount of effort. This is certainly at least partially true, and I'm not sure how to combat it. It seems like teachers and librarians are only this small portion of what a student takes in every day.

In any case. The weather has cooled down and September is ending spectacularly here in Boston. I'm going to go do my homework outside.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Me, Librarian - You, Computer Scientist

So here's the sequence of events leading up to what I've been thinking about today. I left one job last week for another, and the lovely librarians there gave me the perfect parting gifts - a tote bag reading "Librarian: the Original Search Engine" (in the Google font) and the movie Desk Set. Then today, working my way through the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I've seen the second and third seasons, and am now getting back to my roots), I watched the episode "I Robot - You Jane." I also attended the first meeting of one of the classes I'm taking this semester - Database Management. Which all adds up to thinking about this conversation that's been going on for many years, about computers/the Internet and libraries - a conversation that's often adversarial. Desk Set was made in 1957 with the premise that computers are going to be smarter than humans, and therefore the librarian and the printed page will soon be obsolete. Well...clearly, that hasn't really happened.

The Buffy episode, made forty years later, sets this up through a series of antagonistic conversations between Giles (the stereotypically computer-phobic, old-fashioned librarian) and Jenny Calendar (the stereotypical computer teacher who thinks technology is the answer to everything). Jenny sees Giles as a snob who wants to withhold information, keep it locked up and controlled - she thinks information should be free-flowing rather than compartmentalized. She points out, "You know, the last two years, more e-mail was sent than
regular mail. More digitized information went across phone lines than conversations." (Which Giles regards with "genuine horror.") Giles, for his part, has this to say about Ms. Calendar's lab (reproduced with all its British hesitation from IMDB):

Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a - it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It's-it's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.

Of course, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I'm going to grant truth to both sides of this so-called conflict. The digital revolution can only go so far - we simply cannot spend our entire lives looking at screens. Both the serendipitous and fecund Internet, and the organized and sensory world of offline information, are important. I hear that even Giles moves from date due cards to a scanner in a later season.

In other brief news, the new job isn't that only thing that's new around here. I moved back to the dorm, I have a new operating system (I got an extremely gently used Mac), and of course, it's a new semester. Transition has sort of become my normal state of being for the last two years, so its symbolic sheen has sort of worn off. I'm hunkering down rather than reaching for self-transformation. The closest thing I've got to a central talisman right now is my READ poster with Alan Rickman on it. When I see it, I don't think about Snape or even Colonel Brandon. I see him smiling in this encouraging way, like an uncle or a professor, and if I'm mired in details, I can remind myself that each day adds itself onto the curve of meaningful work and life. Yes, I get all that from that poster - I guess that's why it's a symbol. And that's the power of Alan Rickman.