Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Webinars, Graduate Students, Visitors and Residents

So the Visitors and Residents research team (myself, Dave White, and Lynn S. Connaway) conducted a Jisc/OCLC webinar (with the generous and effective chairing of Lorcan Dempsey) yesterday.  The purpose was to introduce people to our InfoKit, and also to have a chance to talk a bit more about research results and practical implications for transforming HE (and other) approaches to digital tools and places.

In my part of the webinar I focused on graduate students, and the story that I think is emerging from our data about the potential impact that digital places and communities can have on the relative isolation of graduate students from their peers.  I'm reproducing part of what I said here, and will come back and edit the blogpost as the links to the webinar and full powerpoint become available (thanks to the capable skills of our colleagues at Netskills).  I Storified the session here.    The GoogleDoc with links to project outputs, etc. is here

I started off talking about sources and authority, actually, going over some of the findings that we cover in the People Trust People , Convenient Doesn't Always Mean Simple, and Assessing Non-Traditional Sources part of the InfoKit.  These pieces are important background to thinking about the experience of graduate students, because they are at a moment of transition, from being those who are expected to learn about authoritative sources and use them effectively, to those who are expected to become and produce authoritative sources of information themselves, as practitioners in their fields.  

This transition used to take place almost entirely in physical places, in seminar rooms, laboratories, academic libraries, and at face-to-face conferences.  But the Internet is a now a place where things happen, things that used to only happen face to face.  A holistic picture of academic behavior, of information seeking behavior, therefore has to include these digital places, and should pay attention to resident practices as we define them in the Visitors and Residents project.
People use social media tools and spaces like Twitter and Facebook to connect.  This is not a surprising or new thing, but needs to be kept in mind, as it's a phenomenon that is certainly not going away.  We also need to collectively keep in mind that just because these digital places exist, not everyone is excited by Twitter or Facebook or Instagram.  Awareness of these social media environments and the communities within them is not dependent on a generational identity, but is about personal preferences and individual motivations to engage.  We cannot, should not assume monolithic attitudes towards these places and tools. Digital places like YouTube and Facebook and Twitter are not easily classed as only “entertainment” or “academic” in character or purpose, because of the wide range of activities that now occur in those spaces.  Knowing that someone goes to YouTube doesn’t tell you why they are there, or what they might do, or who they might seek out there.

So these graphs are interesting to me, because they seem to point to an opportunity to help graduate students.

I’ve put a red oval around the post-graduate/ grad student category, that we call Embedding.
Notice here the purple line for face to face contact, and notice in particular how low (comparatively) the mentions of face to face contact are for  grad students.  They are texting with people, making phone calls, and in particular emailing far more than engaging face to face.

Notice here who graduate students are in most contact with-professors, then peers.  For Professors, it’s the reverse order—they are in touch with peers and then with experts, mentors, and librarians at similarly low rates. Think about future of graduate students, of them as future (and current) practitioners in their fields.  Contact with professors makes sense, of course, but contact with peers seems crucial.  How else are they going to build their community, find their voice, engage in the back and forth of scholarly communication with their fellow practitioners?

The Blue line is FB, red is Twitter, purple line is Academic Libraries (physical spaces).  Graduate students narrow contact that they have with people, and are also physically isolated, working in the library, offices or labs.  I see this in the other ethnographic work that I do as well, the maps that graduate students, particularly in the sciences, produce of their learning landscapes are restricted to one or two places, in sharp contrast to the wide-ranging maps of undergraduates and professors.
But when we look at the places they do go, in addition to being present in academic libraries' physical spaces (wsee a radical difference in the role of academic library spaces in our interviews with graduate students, compared to other educational stages), graduate students are present in significant rates on Facebook, and Twitter. 

We need to think about implications of online resident practices for grad students.   Their social media presence might be an opportunity for them to facilitate contact in the isolating environment of graduate school .  This is something we need to look at further—what is happening as they transition from student to practitioner in their field?  How are their experiences in physical spaces like libraries related to the academic work they do in digital places like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, etc.?  Where are they resident, where are they visitors?  If resident practices are those that facilitate the finding of voice, and the production of scholarship (in a variety of modes), what can it look like in grad school?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Cartography of Learning

So, I've been thinking about mapping, not just because I have these maps I collected at UCL in March, but also because I've been thinking more about the utility of processes such as the V&R mapping that we have been using in our research.  What Dave White has said to me is that mapping exercises like V&R give us processes to offer people, but no answers, that in fact people use the processes to find their own answers.  It's not our job as researchers to provide answers, in this framing, but to ask effective questions that prompt people to find their own way.  As usual, my first instinct was to be annoyed by this. My annoyance stems now from thinking that Dave is probably correct.

I am often asked for Answers when I give talks about what is going on with faculty and students and libraries and education generally.  While it's tempting to try to provide Answers,  I think that I'm much better at coming up with more questions.  And ultimately, that might be more useful, as I think I'm probably not the one who should be Answering.

Cognitive mapping exercises at UNCC and UCL reveal people's learning landscapes.  Thinking about cognitive mapping in the larger context of mapping exercises  made me consider the possibility of a discussion around the cartography of learning, that is, all the different ways we try to capture and visualize what people are doing when they are learning.  We are mapping (or having people map for themselves) what they perceive to be there, and in the mapping we receive a revelation, not something predictable, or predicting.  We also do not have a precise rendering of actual practices, but an interpretation of practice.  How can we use the maps to build more deeply observed pictures of behavior?  How do we deal with the fact that maps are only ever representations of a lived reality?

If the Google Earth of Bloomsbury looks like this:

And the Google Map looks like this:

And the Tube map, itself a concept map of sorts, looks like this:

Then we have a map like this one I collected in March:

For this first year archaeology student, UCL is a series of spaces isolated from each other, but connected by the fact that he needs to do things, different academic tasks,  in each space (my favorite is the professor's office in the lower left, filled with clutter except for a small clearing in which professor and students can sit to talk).  I can see that these spaces are connected, but he does not represent them that way.

This PhD student has drawn lines indicating how connected her spaces are, the ones in Bloomsbury, and the ones that are not.  She annotated the map with notes about the technology and particulars of the work she does in each space, which places have particular resources (content and people) she cannot get anywhere else, and marks cafes with the cups of tea or coffee that she goes there for.  She has glossed her own map--I can bring my own spin to things (and I will), but there is already interpretation here.

Cognitive maps, the V&R maps, these are all contributing to a kind of cartography of practice.  In the case of the cognitive maps I've been collecting from faculty and students, the mapping is an emic process, where the the practitioners themselves represent their own practices as best they can.

 In V&R mapping workshops,  people map their own practices, but they are also asked to think about the practices of others.  We've done that in the V&R research project as well,  for example in this map, where we took practices invoked by the interviewee and plotted it in the V&R continuua:

map by Dave White and Erin Hood.

Here we engaged in the mapping of the traces of practices of others as an analytical tool, engaging in an etic process, imposing our interpretation of meaning from the outside looking in.

They map, we map, and possible meanings and definite questions can emerge from the process of mapping.

I have been working my way through Latour's Reassembling the Social with a Twitter group of colleagues, and am only part way through.  Latour invokes the "cartographies of the social" (p.34) when discussing the need for researchers to pay attention to actual practices, to the lay of the networks in play, and to de-emphasize the interpretive leap while still in the process of figuring out what it is we are looking at.  I am also struck by Latour's insistence that the best social science cannot privilege the perspective of the researcher, but must be embedded in the meanings and practices generated by the people being studied.  This, to me, is a plea for anthropology, but also for the sort of  lack of privileging that mapping exercises like these can inspire--these maps get their meaning from the intentions of the people drawing them as much if not more than from the interpretations we researchers later layer onto them.

Anthropologists are not always fantastic at not-privileging their interpretations of meaning, and I've been helped in this regard by the neo-Boasian appeal of Bunzl.  I frequently talk about being a sort of "native ethnographer," as an academic studying academia, but Bunzl's critique of the necessity of outsider status to anthropology is making me rethink that.  Our position as "outside" or "inside" is not as important as paying attention to what is present, and describing it as thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible.  It is not that interpretation is impossible, but that what we think things mean can and should be informed by a variety of perspectives, including that of the people among whom we are doing our work.  

What is important about the maps, and I think about research generally, is the process, the questions and the discussions they inspire, not the end result.  Thoughts about meaning should emerge from the discussion, from the process, and should never be framed as The Answer.


Bunzl, Matti (2004), Boas, Foucault, and the “Native Anthropologist”: Notes toward a Neo-Boasian Anthropology. American Anthropologist, 106: 435–442. 

Latour, Bruno (2007) Reassembling the Social:  An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford (Oxford University Press). Page numbers refer to Kindle edition.

Google Maps, Google Earth screen shots
Tube map is a crop of:

Monday, June 2, 2014

Guest Blog: Two Paths Forward, by Stanley Wilder

Big transitions happening at J. Murrey Atkins Library this summer, with the departure of my current boss Stanley Wilder for his new position as Dean of Libraries at LSU (both of my parents went to LSU, so Geaux Tigers!).  When he shared the content of the talk he gave when interviewing at LSU, I encouraged him to let me host it here.  And he agreed!  So, here is the (slightly edited) talk Stanley gave, laying out his vision for libraries.

What I appreciate about Stanley's take on the Future of Libraries is that it's not about specific solutions, but about relationships and processes.

Two paths forward
an edited version of Stanley Wilder’s candidate speech for the
Dean of Libraries position at Louisiana State University
March 30, 2014
 Images by Maggie Ngo, UNCC

Here are some things I hear: Everything I need to know is on Google. I’m a faculty member and I don’t use the library. I’m a senior in college and I’ve never been in the library. I’m a senior in college and still use my hometown public library. Hasn’t the Internet made libraries obsolete? I don’t need a library. I don’t read books. Information wants to be free. Librarians are scary people and I don’t trust book stacks!

Every one of these comments is easily and demonstrably wrong, and at the same time, each one is a gift of the first order.  Each one is the gift of attention, an invitation for us to explain who we are and why we’re here. We librarians ask for nothing more.

Oh, we get where these questions come from: In an age of dizzying change in the nature of academic work, and the shifting shape of the discourse that drives it forward, where should the library go from here? As I see it, the library has two paths forward, and I submit this vision as my response to the prompt you’ve given me.

The first path for the research library is its traditional role. A crucial aspect of the nature of learning and research is timeless, absolutely so. In this sense, if you want to know what research library will do in the future, well the answer is that it will do what it has always done.

If you’ll bear with me, I’ve drawn a picture of what I mean.

This is the scholarly record. It is the record of what is known or imagined about the world. Teaching and research consists of assimilating the scholarly record as it pertains to the disciplines we study, in such a way as to enable us to synthesize something new. In the case of faculty, this synthesis is the creation of new knowledge or new art that adds to the scholarly record, where the cycle starts over. This picture applies to students as well, wherein the syntheses they produce often take the form of apprenticeships for the work their faculty do.

Assimilation, synthesis, reading, writing. Here is teaching, learning, and research, as an endless, virtuous cycle around the scholarly record.

I worked for a great Dean of Libraries who came up with the beautiful aphorism:
“A library is a place where readers come to write, and writers come to read. “

I say YES to that: the core function of a research library is now and always will be to build the collections that drive this cycle. Of course it’s not enough to simply build collections, the library also has to facilitate how people interact, at both ends. For example, teaching generations of new students how to work with the literatures of their chosen disciplines. But really, all library services can be characterized in this way. They cluster at these transition points, here and here.

And with that, I’m going to stop myself because I promise you, I could go much further with this silly drawing. My point is this: the idea of the library is so embedded in the fundamental nature of learning and research that it makes no sense to ask whether you need one. The real question before us is whether you need a great library.  

That, then, is my first path. Everything about it relates to the “what” of academic work, what it is fundamentally, what it intends to do in the world.

And yet, at this very same changeless moment, we are now in a period of full-scale revolution in how academic work getsdone. Students and faculty alike are using new tools, in new ways, to produce scholarship in forms that were unimaginable just ten years ago. I used the word “dizzying” a while ago, and I meant it: in this environment, uncertainty abounds.

But here’s one thing I am sure of, and if you retain nothing else from this presentation, please let it be this: this new environment is going to allow smart research libraries to perform that ancient role in ways that produce spectacular new value. This is the library’s second path: embracing, inventing the future so as to do better what we have always done.

Like what, for example. There are so many opportunities that really, our problem is choosing from among them. I’m going to just call out some, a simple list of examples that… illustrate my point, obviously, but I’ve also taken care to choose examples that I have experience with helping produce.

Every item on this list is now or should be a new part of a research library portfolio. What’s more, each one relates directly to issues that faculty and institutions are wrestling with right now. In many cases, they are wrestling, but not knowing that what their library has to offer. There’s nothing dismissive or condescending about it, they just don’t know.

Ladies and Gentlemen: the biggest threat to research libraries is low expectations. Sometimes they come in thoughtlessly dismissive ways, “Aren’t libraries obsolete?” But just as often, low expectations feel warm and fuzzy, filled with nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. To my ears, both are equally toxic.  

So no, our communities can’t be expected to just know enough, say, about the dangerous instability in the scholarly communication marketplace to understand the importance of open access, or any of the other ways we librarians can make things better. No, we have to tell them, and we have to show them.

I think constantly about how the library positions itself vis-à-vis students and faculty. Imagine a continuum. At one end is library as simple service provider, and on the other end is library as full partner, contributing in a substantive fashion to any campus conversation relating to the institution’s core academic mission.  Yes services are crucially important. But make no mistake: real sustainable relevance on campus requires assertiveness, it requires visibility.Everything on this list is an invitation to do just that.

I have one more thing that I must say about the list. The work required for each is grounded, in one way or another, in traditional research library values and expertise. At the same time, every one of them is situated in an entirely new context. I feel a real sense of urgency on this point: this list is turf, and it is ours for the taking. But doing so means that as a profession, as a library, we must recognize that producing the transformational outcomes that are possible here also requires new skills that we must either learn for ourselves, or hire into our organizations. This is not a phase, it’s the new normal.

Let’s talk about students. The library’s student role is large and diverse, as it always has been, but here again we find watershed developments all around us, and once again, the new opportunities that come with.

Half of a research library’s student function is pedagogy. Instruction. The thing we do here is to increase the sophistication of students in interacting with the literatures of their chosen disciplines. Fine, but as you see from the list on the screen, that pedagogy isn’t just situated in terms of discipline, it’s also situated in a broad range of learning environments, which makes it subject to the same seismic change that is shaking teaching throughout higher education.

A quick story to illustrate: Recently, the head of our instruction programming discovered that faculty are very receptive to hearing about ways they can pare back on research paper assignments, in cases where doing so allows them to focus attention on the topic-choosing, question-framing, literature searching, basic-synthesis-forming skills. Library instruction can help with all of that, and this librarian and her staff have created web-based, interactive, and discipline-specific instruction modules that support that use case. And now Stephanie Otis has a fine trade in advising faculty with their course design.

That’s a small but significant example of what I mean by proper positioning of the library on campus. Stephanie puts us exactly where we want to be.

The second half of our student function is building-related, the spaces we provide for student academic work.  I have a missionary’s zeal as to the following idea:  research libraries can be instrumental in building the culture of study on campus. There is a powerful synergy here that only we can offer: the co-location of librarians with collections, and technologies, placed in appropriate spaces,with appropriate furnishings, long hours, and reliable security. No one else can do that!

I like to say that a good research library should be like a zoo. As you pass through it,you will see  students in the very act of learning:chemistry equations here, Chinese vocabulary there, marketing, biology and all the rest, live and happening right before your eyes.  You can even point at them, you can throw popcorn, they don’t mind, but the thing you’d be pointing at is the thing we all work every day to produce, it’s our professional reason for being. If you don’t walk through that zoo and feel energized, I suggest you may want to find another line of work. I would have all students socialized in this way, to where those zoos are just normal: long hours of intense group or individual study?

The title I’ve used for this section is “the world,” as shorthand for a whole range of externally-focused responsibilities that take the library far beyond the scholarly record drawing I talked about earlier. I might also have used the word “leadership.”

I’ve got a bit of show and tell to do for you now, a bit of bragging, maybe, but my intention is to give you a feel for this vision in action.

My story begins this time last year, at UNC Charlotte. Our library was presented with an exceedingly generous bit of one-time money in a more or less blank check fashion. At that moment in time, a number of very prestigious University Press book publishers suddenly made their current lists available, as a package, and in digital format. No limits on simultaneous users, no digital rights restrictions, and good preservation characteristics.

We jumped, bought everything of this sort that we could. We added 75,000 monograph titles last year, average price per ebook volume: about $10.

By June, everything’s in place, the community has full access to these books.

Now, our staff looked at those titles and recognized that there were many among them that were going to be assigned reading for students in the fall. If we could get the word out to faculty and students, we could save students lots of money.

With this insight, our staff flew into action, and just in time for fall semester, produced this web page, complete with links to the ebooks. They also prepared a social media campaign to alert students and faculty. Here’s what we learned: if you use Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about free textbooks? Get out! In a PR sense, nothing we’ve ever done has been so successful, so fast.

So fall semester follows, and the use data on these new ebook packages starts to roll in. Friends, I’m here to say: the scholarly monograph is NOT dead, its use in ebook format is fantastic. Quick example: we have a huge investment in Springer journals and ebooks: our book chapter downloads, from day 1, run slightly ahead of Springer article downloads. Sure, this is a bit of apples and oranges, but on the face of it, it flies against every instinct a research librarian could ever have. Kinda mind blowing.

Spring semester comes, and this time we have had more time, we’re better prepared, and come up with this web page, and associated PR. The results have been stunning, faculty and students alike galvanized around our initiative, we know of a history professor teaching graduate classes for which the students have heavy reading lists, but no books they must buy.

Now we’re up to 4 weeks ago, our staff unveiled their own invention, a database that faculty can use to “shop” for ebooks appropriate for assigning for classes. The database consists of 140,000 titles, every ebook we own, plus every ebook we can get easily get from one of about a dozen University Presses.  As you can see, if you’re a faculty member, see something you want to use for class, we buy it immediately if we don’t already own it.  

Now class, let’s review: this anecdote gives us a shiny example of both paths: path number 1: exactly what is new about a research library buying books to support curriculum and research? And then once we’ve got them, what is new about making those books available for class use? It’s reserves!  OK, there’s our ancient function, but we’ve also got path number 2: everything about how we did all this is new, not just new, it provides brilliant new value that wasn’t possible before.

One last point about that anecdote: I ask you: did the University ask the library to invent a program like this so as to lower the cost of going to college? Because that’s exactly what’s at stake here. NO! They couldn’t have, they couldn’t have known to ask! I talked about low expectations awhile back: sometimes low expectations flow from folks just not knowing what we’re capable of. But I can promise you, people will listen, and they’ll certainly notice.

At this point our staff are fielding queries from all around the country, folks wanting the code, wanting to see how we did every aspect of this. Meanwhile, back on campus, our entire community looks at the library in a different, and better way.

Here again, a well positioned library.

I should pause here to give full credit: the vision behind this anecdote owes entirely to Chuck Hamaker. Once Chuck had this idea, he had inspired help from a large number of staff across units. Oh, and here’s another point: my role in this project? I supported it. Nothing more than that!

Seeing your library also means seeing its staff. Committed professionals every single one, they possess a spectacular range of expertise.

And yet, like the books on the shelves, these people in front of us also evoke the generations of staff that preceded them.

I’d like to tell you a story from my early days at LSU. So early that I was still scrambling to remember the names of my new colleagues. One day a meeting. We were discussing the consequences of a decision made by a staff member, and, wishing to contribute, I suggested that I could meet with her to negotiate. Which prompted whoops of laughter: this person had retired sometime in the 1960s, and had long since passed.

What an epiphany in that moment, though: such a testament to the enduring quality of our work. We can only conclude that we did not build this thing. It was handed to us as a trust, a sacred trust, that through our brains and hard work, we ensure its renewal, and then hand it over in our turn. Stronger than before.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Post-Digital Learning Landscapes

So I've just started to look at what I collected in London last month, but I've actually been thinking about and playing with cognitive maps for the past year or so, and I've got some preliminary analysis already.

Primarily, what I see in the maps that I collect from undergraduates, post-graduates, and faculty/academic staff are learning landscapes.  There is much talk of learning "spaces," but I think the problem there with that terminology is that they can be thought of too easily in isolation.  "Landscape" implies a network of spaces, with a relationship to each other.  Some landscapes are extensive, some are relatively local and limited, but they are all networks, and involve buildings, people, technology, modes of transportation, institutional spaces, commercial spaces, domestic places, and so on.  The reasons that people locate themselves in particular places tend to have less to do with the absolute qualities of a particular place, and more to do with a complex calculus of motives, including not just what they want to do in that place, but where they need to be beforehand, and after, with whom they will be (or want to be, or cannot be with).

The map above was generated by a 3rd year student in Project Management for Construction.  He has drawn UCL on the left, and then broken UCL down into the various institutional spaces he visits for his academic work (the Library, lecture halls, tutors' offices).  These institutional spaces are embedded in a larger network of cafes, domestic spaces, and even (weather permitting) parks.

This MA student in Russian literature has spaces all over London in her map.  Her home has sub-areas she has identified for particular sorts of work, her commute on the bus is earmarked for certain sorts of reading or listening work, and the UCL part of her map includes not just the SSEES library (ostensibly, her academic "home"), but also the Institute of Archaeology library, the Post-graduate common room, the Main library, and various cafe spaces.  She has called out her laptop in the UCL spaces as a crucial part of her landscape.

This faculty member in the Institute of Archaeology has separated his London landscape from his other significant locations, and has included labels for London libraries (the British Library, Senate House, the IoA Library, and in particular the Wellcome Library, limned in red), antiquity societies and museums, the Tube, and his office in the IoA.  Cambridge is important because of its connection to his brother as much as it is for its academic resources.  Yale's Beinecke gains additional importance because of New Haven's pizza.  His home setup is represented by him in an armchair with his laptop and a cat.

What strikes me most about these maps, especially given that I followed up the mapping exercise with a structured interview (modeled on the V&R instrument) is the relative lack of representations of "the digital."  We get some tools (computers, iPods, phones), and occasional representations of places/services such as Dropbox or Evernote, but in general, the digital is shot through these, but invisibly.  If I were to try to layer "the digital" onto a map such as this, it would simply light the entire thing up.

I want to pause here and note that when I first heard "post-digital" in conversation with Lawrie Phipps and Dave White, I was incredibly annoyed.  What on earth could they mean by that?  It smacked of "post-racial," which in my experience is a phrase used by people keen to deny particular sorts of realities.   But these maps, and the interviews that accompanied them plus the last 3 years (yikes) I've spent working on the Visitors and Residents project have apparently made me less resistant to the idea of "post-digital" than I would have been if I'd heard about it when the 52 group (Dave Cormier, Richard Hall, Lawrie Phipps, Dave White, Ian Truelove, and Mark Childs) came up with their concept paper in 2009.

I think I have post-digital learning landscape maps here.  The digital is just understood.  It's water to these academic fish.  And it's not just academics; people generally take the digital so much for granted, that when we ask them (as we do in the Visitors and Residents structured interviews) to think about what they do "with technology" or "on the web" they are taken aback, they have to think about disentangling it to talk about it separately, because their everyday practices are so completely wound around digital tools and places.  The role of the digital is practically unspeakable, we in our interviews are asking them to describe what it's like to breathe.  And when people do talk about technology, it takes very few sentences indeed for them to switch over to talking about people, or information--that is, the stuff they are accessing via technology is far more important, and far more the point, than the technology itself.

From the 52 group's 2009 concept paper, thanks to Doug Belshaw and his blog for leading the way to the cite:

"Not only is the digital subservient to the social, it is, in some ways (and soon most ways), transparent. We are moving towards a postdigital age where the tools driven by the microprocessor are common to the extent to which they will no longer be noticed. As the 'digital' calculator and the 'digital' watch have become calculators and watches, so will the ebook become a book and IM become 'message': the 'instant' will be taken for granted. Things digital will be accepted alongside our other technologies and the slate swept clear of many of the distracting dualisms (and technological factions) that pervade the educational discourse. The postdigital frees us to think more clearly and precisely about the issues we face, rather than become tied to an obsession with, and the language of, the new."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

London Travelogue, Part the Third: Senate House

Thanks to Andrew Praeter and Simon Barron I got a fantastic tour of the Senate House library (and building) just before I left London for home.

It's a spectacular building--apparently, if WWII hadn't broken out, it would have been part of a complex that extended all the way up through Gordon Square (right in front of the current Institute of Archaeology building).  Crazy to think about.  It was the first skyscraper in London.

It's a landmark in Bloomsbury, and I've been walking past it for years, never quite realizing that's what it was.  Senate House is an interesting library in that it's not attached to any one particular University, but rather has (someone correct me if I'm wrong) member institutions who pay for their students to have access.  Senate House showed up in some of the cognitive maps that I collected from people at UCL, as a place where people enjoyed working.  It's a lovely building, I adore Art Deco architecture and design, and it's a pleasure walking around it.  The specific history of the building is fascinating, as there are elements that are simply unfinished (especially decorative flourishes that never happened), because of the War.  The decorative flourishes that did manage to happen are stunning.

 Stained glass windows.

The Senate Chamber.  I want to give a talk in this room SO MUCH.

More stained glass.

Beautiful clock (with the reflection of Simon for good measure).
Lovely fabulous marble hall.

The library-specific spaces in Senate House are uniformly Traditional Quiet Library spaces--there are no group study spaces in Senate House (although, apparently, students will walk up to the desk and ask "where are the group study rooms?").  The assumption is that there are such spaces provided by the home academic departments.  I wonder how accurate that assumption is.

At any rate, as Traditional Library Spaces go, the ones in Senate House are nicely appointed, and are a good fit with contemporary scholarly behaviors (and technology).

This traditional reading room has tables big enough for people to spread out, and also use their laptops/tablets
This reading room used to have desktop computers in it, but they moved those out and now just have large tables as shown.

Self-service laptop checkouts have replaced desktop computers distributed throughout the Senate House spaces. Patrons can take the laptops wherever in Senate House they feel most comfortable working, and don't have to rely on where computers happen to be, if they don't walk in with their own devices.  Wireless is throughout the building.

Up in the stacks, there are workspaces as well.  These little window seats have always been popular (windows are popular in Atkins, and really in nearly every library I've ever seen, at least in terms of where patrons like to park themselves).  Senate House recently got new fittings for these window areas.

A light, a shelf, a work surface, and outlets/powerpoints.  And, a chair.

There are also these tables, with powerpoints and room to spread out.  The funny pillars on the end of the table are artifacts from when there was a fixed desktop and monitor on one end of the table.  Senate House has moved away from desktops in their library, except where they are used for catalog check stations.

This, however, is my favorite space in Senate House.  Filled with huge tufted leather sofas.  Magic. 

Apparently there was some initial worry that the sofas would encourage talking.  I think that the arrangement of them in rows, the fact that they are massive heavy pieces, and the placement of them in a room that is clearly a "Traditional Reading Room" all sets the tone nicely, and it's clearly a quiet place to study that just happens to be filled with soft seating rather than desks and hard chairs.  I would spend all of my time here, if this were My Library.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

London Travelogue, Part the Second: Mostly not London, the Pitt-Rivers Museum (with a bit of the Soane at the end)

My favorite thing about Oxford (once I figured out that DS Hathaway was not in fact waiting for me in a pub alongside the Thames) was the Pitt-Rivers Museum.  You have to walk through the Oxford Museum of Natural History to get to it.

Once I walked into the room, I laughed aloud.  It was 19th Century Anthropology Overload.  It's magnificent and mad.

Every case is chock-full of artifacts.  Check out that totem pole.

 Pitt-Rivers was an amazing collector, with connections to collectors, explorers, and ethnographers who worked all over the planet.  The Pitt-Rivers Museum's website is a great resource for visualizing the collection, and exploring as much as they have been able to reveal so far online.  All of the items collected were either given to the collectors as gifts, or purchased from the people who created the artifacts, and then donated to the museum.  The Pitt-Rivers site also describes the rationale for having all of these cases arranged as they are:

"In most ethnographic and archaeological museums the displays are arranged according to geographical or cultural areas. Here they are arranged according to type: musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery, and tools are all displayed in groups to show how the same problems have been solved at different times by different peoples. The cases appear to be very crowded, as a very large percentage of the collection is on view. In some instances the 'displays' are primarily visible storage, due to the museum being first and foremost a teaching and research institution and the curators are also university lecturers in either cultural anthropology or prehistoric archaeology. A number of degree courses are taught to both graduate and undergraduate studies. If you look carefully you will see that actually a great deal of information is provided about individual objects. The small labels, many of them hand printed by the first Curator, are very revealing. We offer more contemporary interpretative displays in our special exhibition gallery."

Collected by E.B. Tylor!

My problem (you knew there was going to be a problem, didn't you, I'm just having that kind of week) with these sorts of museums/collections is that they make it terrifically easy for those who are prone to think in terms of Human Universals to continue to think that way.  While a nuanced reading of these packed cases allows us to see the variety of ways that people approach similar natural phenomena, or social phenomena, there is a curious flattening effect that can occur when so much variety is put in a glass case.   It becomes "people all play music!"  "people all represent animals!"  "people do body mods!"  And in the drawing of connections, the distinctiveness of each culture can be lost.

While I value tremendously the sense of shared humanity that anthropology can bring, I think it's dangerous to take collections of human artifacts from the 19th century, a time of tremendous cultural upheaval and colonial violence, and draw uncomplicated inferences about the shared human condition.  I should be clear here that I do NOT think that is what the Pitt-Rivers museum or their (fantastic) staff are doing.  I do think that this sort of museum is most effectively experienced with some sort of mediation.  The context in which these artifacts were collected is as important to the meaning of the museum as are the artifacts themselves.

The most striking case for me was this one:

Many of the human remains in this case (a two-sided case) were from South American and Papua New Guinea.  They are fascinating, repellent, sad, fierce.  They deserve a book (at least)  all to themselves.  How can we interpret the meaning of these remains in the isolation of the glass case?  How do we dare?

It occurs to me that the Pitt-Rivers collection is of a piece with the Regency House in London that is now Sir John Soane's Museum .  The architect Soane (who is one of my favorite people only because he designed the TARDIS)  filled his house with furniture, bits and pieces of sculpture, architectural details from buildings, some of it copies some of it originals, from all over Europe, from Egypt, and parts of Asia, in the grand tradition of colonial Britain.  He put together disparate pieces on the same wall, in the same room, according to what he thought went together, regardless of where it came from, of the lost intentions of the people who made it.  He was a magpie, plucking attractive things from their original location, and decorating his own home with them.

Exterior of Soane's House in London.

I think it's worthwhile (and I know this is not an original thought on my part) asking what the purpose of such collections was, and is today.   Is it to illuminate the study of form (as was clearly the case with Soane)?  Of function?  Of meaning?  Yes, of all three.  But collections of objects disassociated from their origins,  I think say much more about the collectors of the objects than they do about the the people who created them.

 The Pitt-Rivers museum has a great deal of contemporary interpretation to overlay onto this collection, and their upper galleries take on some of the issues of representation and collections like these.  I suppose everyone can visit the museum they think they are in.  My preference would be that visitors to museums like this be directed very explicitly to the particular nature of collections like these, how situated they are in history, how important it is to approach these objects thoughtfully, as a way of thinking about the people who produced them, not just the scholars, explorers, and colonists who acquired them.

Spectacular mask collected from the NW Coast of N. America.  I am proving my own point by not having recorded which tribe this is from.  I want to say Haida or Tlingit.

Friday, April 11, 2014

London Travelogue, Part The First: Not London, but Oxford and Manchester

So in addition to working in London, I had a couple of chances to do field trips to Very Special Libraries, one in Oxford, and one in Manchester.  The one in Oxford I've known about for a while:

The Bodleain

One of the many beautiful closed doors in Oxford

I know, I know, Oxford is not a "public" university, there should be different notions of access, I cannot expect the walls and gates and doors of Oxford to be open to all comers, because it's just never been that way.

You have to climb up pretty high to see into the enclosures of Oxford.

But the collective experience of the closed-off feel, the tour wherein we were assured that the most important people in the building were The Scholars (and therefore, Not Us), and signs like this:

No Smoking I can get behind.  SILENCE PLEASE is different.

really hammer it home--"This is not for you."

The Rylands Library, on the other hand, is a Special Collections library associated with the University of Manchester (a red-brick state school).

You can walk right in, no charge, even if you are not a student (which is not necessarily the case at UCL, even, where you have to swipe your bar-coded-card to enter every library, and most of the academic buildings).  The Rylands is a Gothic Cathedral to knowledge (I've blogged about libraries that make me think of ecclesiastical monuments before), and the reading room is open to anyone who wants to work in there, even if they are not working with the Rylands collections.   It's a beautiful building, and a rare example of an inspiring space that is also accessible.

We talked briefly in our Spaces, Places and Practices seminar about the impact of spaces, in particular Traditional Library spaces that invoke places like the Bodleian and Rylands.  But Traditional Library spaces, while they can be used by students and faculty to get themselves into a desired state of mind (for reading, for writing, for scholarship of various kinds), can also feel exclusionary.  It's as if some students internalize the signs that the Bodleian puts up (and sells in their gift shop!), and transfer that to all library spaces.  It's not enough to be respectful of the space, you have to act so that they cannot tell you are there.  SILENCE.  I understand the utility of focus and quiet.  I understand less the signals that emphasize the otherworldly nature of scholarship to the point of alienating people from the traditional places of scholarship.  I am not convinced they are necessary.

They also make me want to stomp my boots and dance around in the courtyard of the Bodleian.

Probably not my dance partner, though.