What’s Needed for Democracy

 

We are seeing more and more resistance to what is happening in Washington, D.C. Rebecca Solnit recently wrote, “Democracy thrives best in a society whose water is drinkable, whose schools impart a decent education, whose citizens have adequate incomes and hope for the future. People have less time, less energy, and fewer resources to participate in civic life when they lack reliable access to food and shelter, when they are overworked and scrambling to stay afloat, when they have been burdened with immense debt by the cost of an education or housing or health care, when they have been criminalized, marginalized, terrorized”; “Tyranny of the Minority,” Harper’s (March 2917), pp. 5-6.

We could add to this list that it is also essential to have access to government and corporate information in order to have transparency; read the Declaration of Independence and the original list of complaints against the King.

Think

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, the author of a series of provocative books, has authored another timely one with his Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). He provides this brief statement about the book’s purpose: “In short, this book is one giant column about the world today. It aims to define the key forces that are driving change around the world, to explain how they are affecting different people and cultures, and to identify what I believe to be the values and responses most appropriate to managing these forces, in order to get the most out of them fir the most people in the most places and to cushion their harshest impacts” (p. 15). If we could locate someone in the Trump administration who actually reads, this would be a recommended reading.

In this long, richly textured tome, Friedman examines the primary drivers in the world economy, namely the market, nature (principally climate change), and the increasing power of digital technology at ever declining cost (Moore’s law). Unlike those now setting the agenda in Washington, D.C., Friedman looks ahead, trying to find positive ways of grappling with the many problems that come with a world changing at ever accelerating speed.

Friedman has a lot to say about the role of information technology. At one point, he reflects that it takes five to fifteen years for new laws and regulations to safeguard society from some of the new technologies, but by then these technologies may have come and gone. In characteristic fashion, Friedman states, “This is a problem” (p. 33). He also muses about the challenges of having algorithms in charge of everything, rather than people, an issue connected to our continuing fascination with Big Data.

However, it is not what he says about technology that is important, in my opinion. It is an argument that we need to pause and reflect – think – about the issues confronting us. Technology has become a tool for distracting us. We need to work on the ethical, moral, and legal issues we encounter – and there is no time like the present for us to reboot ourselves. This explains his book’s title – take a little extra time before plunging into the next meeting, scrolling through the Web, or taking on the next project.

Analog Revenge

Most of us have noticed, over the recent past, the re-emergence of older technologies, like paper, vinyl recordings, and film photography. David Sax, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (New York: Public Affairs, 2016), charts this phenomenon and explains why it has happened. Sax explains that in such cases, like paper, that the older technology excels in fundamental ways that supports its existence even in the midst of the array of glittering digital technologies. How many Moleskine notebooks do you have? I possess at least half a dozen. They are not only functional, but they just look cool, especially along side my Apple laptop. This “notebook became a symbol of aspirational creativity, a product that not only worked well as a functional tool, but told a story about you, even if you never wrote on a single page” (p. 35). This is a collection of stories and first-hand accounts, documenting that consumers have desires that range far beyond the digital. For archivists, what is happening reminds us that there remains surprises in the consumer marketplace that work against the demise of older recording technologies. Some of Sax’s examples, such as the persistence of the printed book, often deemed to be dead, are quite compelling. In the case of the book, he says, “the reasons are simple: reading on paper is highly functional and almost second nature for us” (p. 111). I have thousands of books, and not just because I like them as artifacts; I mark them up, sort them, and use them as the spines of my class lectures and seminar discussions. And Sax reminds us that “Silicon Valley is an idealistic place” with a “soul and heart . . . intimately tied to the counterculture movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When startup founders stand on stages at technology conferences and promise to change the world, their sentiment is genuine, and their belief in the transformational power of technology for good is downright religious” (p. 225). But our persistent use of older analog technologies suggests another kind of religious fervor for these older forms. Sax reminds us that life is a bit more complicated than in the promises made to us through the high-tech advertisers and true-believer pundits.

The Newton Papers

Despite the usually fascinating history of archives and manuscripts collections, we lack in the number of good studies. Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), is an exemplary example of the genre. Her book opens up with the sale and dispersal of Newton’s papers in 1936 at a Sotheby’s auction in London. She provides a good description of the scale of the materials, with a vast quantity of unpublished materials on a wide range of topics, such as religion and alchemy in addition to his better-known scientific ventures. The book provides insights into the creation of the documents. Newton was an “incessant” note-taker and constantly revising his work, leading to a characterization of the archives that certainly captures the sense of many other collections: “Ultimately – as generations of scholars discovered—Newton’s papers will always remain unfixed and unstable. The manuscripts abound in revisions.” He was his own life-long editor (p. 203).

We also get a good sense of archival work. Newton’s manuscripts represent a large and complex collection, capable of giving up secrets long after Newton’s death; the effort to catalog them was a long and complicated affair. Their nature slowed down their use by scholars, especially those who became involved in producing documentary editions. The history of the Newton materials is placed firmly within the context of development of archives, bibliomania, and the growth and obsession of manuscript collecting. Dry’s book is certainly a good case study about what happens when the fonds of one individual is scattered among private collectors and institutional repositories. But most of all we get a good sense of the importance of archives: “In among his drafts and revisions, we are as close to Newton as his pen was to paper” (p. 211). What a good way to describe why archives remain important to society.

 

 

Sorting Things Out in Post-Truth America

There has been much speculation about the unexpected results of our recent elections, with analysts and pundits flailing about to determine what happened. One thing is certain, however, and that is that social media and other information technologies played substantial roles in these events, not altogether surprising. We have long assumed that the digital era we live in is part of a new flourishing of a knowledge renaissance, the mistake of being swayed by technology’s potential rather than its results. Now we find ourselves scratching our heads about “post-truth” and “alternative facts” and wonder what happened. We remain amazed as our new president claims that there were millions of illegitimate votes cast, a claim against all evidence and one threatening to undermine the very fabric of our democratic system.

We should not have been so surprised, perhaps, after all. We have had many commentators warning us that our dazzling array of information technologies does not represent a panacea for our societal ills. Nicholas Carr, in his latest book, Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations (New York: Norton and Co., 2016) is but a recent example of such assessment. Carr reminds us that we treat technology, digital and otherwise, like a religion, warning us of the complications caused by such a perspective: “The culture that emerged on the network, and that now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterized by frenetic production and consumption . . . but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness. It’s a culture of distraction and dependency” (p. xix). Think of all those polls and other data suggesting a very different outcome to the election. It gets worse. Carr argues that our use of the Web and social media helps us to withdraw from society: “We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us” (p. xxi). In other words, just make up stuff, and keep doing it, since people will eventually believe it. Don’t read a book. Don’t think about anything.

It is not hard to imagine how these technologies contribute to social and political discourse fraught with exaggerations and falsehoods. It seems that people are susceptible to fake news, political falsehoods, and distortions of fact posted on the Web or encapsulated in Twitter messages. In general, it seems that we have lost our ability to evaluate critically text and other sources. It does not help that our cable news providers seem mostly to be reacting to what they see on Twitter rather than doing serious investigative journalism. All that information, some of it false or misleading, doesn’t make us smarter after all. It should only remind us that the various technologies provide us the potential to know more and to work and live smarter. We need to be able to discern the limitations of the technologies, not to put them on our altars.

Faculty, Fake News, and Teaching

Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communications and media at Merrimack College, has an interesting, if disturbing essay about her efforts to teach her students about how to deal with fake news stories and false information. She relates how her compilation of fake sources went viral and the various threats and harassment directed at her for her efforts. She offers up an interesting assessment that is particularly relevant for the times we live in: “In an era of students’ secretly filming classes, guns on campused, and professor watchlists, it feels like a scary time to be a professor – which means it’s an important time to be a professor.” The essay was published in the January 20, 2017 issue of The Chronicle Review, p. B16 (the entire issue was focused on “post-truth.”

American Treasures

Usually when someone goes into a bookstore, it is difficult to find volumes about archival matters. Stephen Puleo’s delightful American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016) changes this. Providing detailed accounts of the creation and subsequent efforts to protect these important documents from war and other calamities, Puleo offers insights into how our nation perceives and values these fundamental texts. Written in an engaging fashion intended to reach a popular audience, American Treasures argues for the symbolic significance of the documents in supporting a common foundation for the nation. These are good stories, not well known outside of the professional ranks of archivists, stressing the efforts to preserve such documents and the challenges in doing so. Even so, at times Puleo seems to overstate how Americans value these documents, confusing fascination with seeing the originals with the general support of archival institutions and archivists. In fairness to this author, it is not his intention to provide a framework for understanding archives. He is interested in these stories, and he is a good storyteller, because the “documents are the mirror to our national heritage and the blueprint of our national identity” (p. 355); it is up to archivists and their allies to make a stronger case for why the archival enterprise should be better explained and supported. Puleo’s book provides a useful tool for such work.

Digital Memory

Memory has been part of the discourse about archives for a long time, but, as Abby Smith Rumsey suggests in her new book, When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016), this is more complicated than it might seem. As she states at the very beginning, “The carrying capacity of our memory system is falling dramatically behind our capacity to generate information” (p. 3) – and it is this carrying capacity that is one of the responsibilities of archivists (with others such as librarians and museum curators). And the challenge is one long known to archivists, that digital memory is very fragile. Given that everyone with access to a computer can generate lots of information, Rumsey believes that one of the main questions facing us is “what can we afford to lose?” (p. 7). Her book’s purpose is “to deepen our understanding of memory’s role in creating the future and to expand the imaginative possibilities for rebuilding memory systems for the digital age” (p. 13). In fact, Rumsey writes with a sense of urgency: “With every innovation in information technology that produces greater efficiency by further compressing data, librarians and archivists begin a frantic race against time to save the new media, inevitably more ephemeral” (p. 46). Such a sense of urgency has been in place, in reality, for at least three decades.

One of the strengths of this book is that Rumsey does not consider the rapid growth of information as merely a technical issue of the late twentieth century, with the advent of the computer, but extends it well back into the early nineteenth century. This kind of historical context is something often missing in books on this topic. Indeed, she revisits the past even farther back, to the advent of writing, the origin of libraries, printing, and the rise of science and philosophy. In this historical assessment this scholar focuses on the continuing proliferation of information with every new phase of technology, reminding us that the concern about what and how much we can remember is an old one. She also reflects the growing complexity of scholarship on memory, such as “We must be as adept at forgetting what is no longer true or useful as we are at remembering what is valuable and necessary” (p. 11). Again, this strikes close to the heart of the archival mission and work. Indeed, there is much in the book that closely aligns with what archivists do, such as, “The culture of knowledge in America has been a servant of democratic governance. This instrumental view of knowledge meant that three principles would be become fundamental to American-style democracy: The press must be free, the government must be open and accountable to the people, and the education of the citizenry must be a right and responsibility of the governed and their representatives” (p. 67). This kind of description ought to sound familiar to most American archivists (and it is particularly relevant today).

In her analysis, Rumsey considers both the strengths and weaknesses of the developing digital information technologies. At one point, she notes that all these technologies are only truly useful if they preserve the context that they are created and exist in. She also describes the differences in managing things and the virtual. As she considers the notion of the universal library and private libraries, Rumsey raises the specter of how easily breached the online versions of these can be. She is particularly adept at demonstrating how the growth in use of information technologies has given rise to libraries, archives, and museums and new specialized staffs and mechanism for managing their holdings. Yet, with the increasing sophistication of these technologies and their capacities has come a loss in our ability to retain digital memory. Now analog formats look more substantial – “They can be slow and imprecise, but infinitely rich in subtlety and nuance for perception” (p. 116). In analyzing all the problems posed by digital information technologies Rumsey cautions that we will not be able to solve them in one or two generations (indeed, archivists now have three generations of professionals who have grappled with these problems). Memory now looks different: “The new paradigm of memory is more like growing a garden. Everything that we entrust to digital code needs regular tending, refreshing, and periodic migration to make sure that it is still alive, whether we intend to use it in a year, one hundred years, or maybe never, We simply cannot be sure now what will have value in the future. We need to keep as much as we can as cheaply as possible” (p. 148). Even with a growing array of digital historians, librarians, and archivists, we still have a long way to go in having any certainty about how well we are preserving digital memory (and personally, I do not believe that that uncertainty will ever dissipate). Why? Because “nothing we have invented so far is as fragile as digital data” (p. 162).

This is a thought-provoking book.

Two New Academic Positions at the University of Pittsburgh

Below are descriptions of two new opportunities in my School in the areas of Archives and Information Science and Data Stewardship.

 

First Position

Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship

Non-Tenure-Stream Faculty Position in Archives and Information Sciences

The School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh (http://www.ischool.pitt.edu) is currently inviting applications for a non-tenure-stream faculty position in the field of Archives and Information Sciences at an Assistant/Associate Professor level– Position #27041 (Non-Tenure Stream). The initial appointment is expected to be three years with consideration for renewal. Anticipated start date is August 1, 2017.

We are seeking candidates with the desire and ability to lead our Archives and Information Sciences pathway. The successful candidate will have a strong commitment to impactful research as well as to teach at the graduate and undergraduate levels. The applicant’s main research and teaching areas may include:

  • Digital curation, preservation, and stewardship, including data archives, research data management, and innovative methods for long-term information stewardship;
  • Historical and contemporary archival research and practice, with an emphasis on how traditional archival functions are being transformed in today’s digital, collaborative environments;
  • Specialized fields such as community archives and informatics, digital forensics, and digital humanities;
  • Information governance and US and international archival recordkeeping policies, traditions, and laws.

 

Our School has maintained one of the leading archives graduate programs in the United States for many years. We are particularly interested in someone who is comfortable with our department’s growing focus on data stewardship and digital curation.

 

Candidates applying for the position are expected to hold an earned doctorate or the equivalent in academic or professional experience. Applicants should present a record of effective teaching, research, leadership abilities and related scholarly activities. Electronic applications should be sent to https://ischoolatpitt.wufoo.com/forms/faculty-position-in-archives-and-info-sciences/. Applications should include a cover letter, curriculum vitae, research statement, teaching statement, and the names, postal addresses, email addresses, and telephone numbers for three references. For full consideration and priority, applications must be received by February 15, 2017.  Questions about the position should be directed to:

Dr. Richard Cox, Chair of the Search Committee

School of Computing and Information

University of Pittsburgh

 

Further information regarding the School and this position can be found at http://www.ischool.pitt.edu/news/facultyopenings.php.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Computing and Information is a top-ranked information school (iSchool) offering a wide variety of multidisciplinary opportunities, including an undergraduate program (BSIS), Master’s programs in information science (MSIS), telecommunications & networking (MST), library & information science (MLIS), and Ph.D. programs. The School offers generous research, teaching, travel, and administrative support.

Pittsburgh’s industrial past has given way to an enterprising and vibrant present. Affordable living, world-class universities, distinctive neighborhoods, growing industries, and an abundance of leisure activities create a quality of life in Pittsburgh that is virtually unmatched. Pittsburgh is consistently ranked in Rand McNally’s Top Ten Most Livable Cities in North America.

The University of Pittsburgh is an Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity Employer Minorities/Women/Vets/Disabled.

Second Position

Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship 

     Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Position in Data Stewardshp

The School of Computing and Information (http://www.ischool.pitt.edu) at the University of Pittsburgh is seeking to fill a faculty position in Data Stewardship at an Assistant/Associate Professor level – Position #134534 (Non-Tenure Stream). The initial appointment is expected to be three years with consideration for renewal. Anticipated start date is August 1, 2017.

We are looking for an experienced practitioner and scholar in Data Stewardship who can demonstrate an in-depth understanding of data curation, data documentation and data preservation, specifically:

  • Current best practices and policy surrounding active data management through the data lifecycle, including data collection, data management plans, data storage, data quality and reproducibility
  • Experience of handling research data including application of data standards and formats, data description and documentation, metadata schema for disciplinary data, data citation and persistent identifiers, data publication, data analysis, data visualization, data re-use and metrics
  • Contemporary good practice in data selection and appraisal, data infrastructure including data repository software platforms, and long-term data preservation strategies
  • An awareness of diverse disciplinary data practices, research workflows and workflow platforms, as well as an in-depth knowledge of particular domain(s).

 

The University of Pittsburgh School is a top-ranked information school (iSchool) offering a wide variety of multidisciplinary opportunities, including an undergraduate program (BSIS), Master’s programs in information science (MSIS), telecommunications & networking (MST), library & information science (MLIS), and Ph.D. programs. The new Data Stewardship Pathway for graduate students studying for the MLIS, draws on the concept of “translational data science”, described by Lyon & Brenner (2015) as:

“the enhanced transition of skills, software tools and intelligence from the iSchool to the marketplace, which may be interpreted as industry, government, libraries, archives or data centers”. Adopting a translational perspective will enable iSchools to supply and deploy data talent and data products more rapidly to the range of consumers, where there is currently an acknowledged workforce need”.

Development of the Data Stewardship Pathway has been further informed by the results of two small-scale studies, which featured an analysis of requirements for real-world positions in each of the six data science roles (data archivist, data librarian, data steward / curator, data analyst, data engineer and data journalist) and which highlighted the knowledge, skills and competencies being sought by employers (Lyon, Mattern, Acker & Langmead 2016; Lyon & Mattern 2016).

We expect candidates for this position to possess strong experience within the broader data community or in professional data curation environments and to have excellent interpersonal, communication and team skills. The new faculty member is expected to be able to liaise and collaborate with disciplinary faculty and researchers across a range of Schools and Departments in the University, but also with the regional, national and international data community. The University is actively addressing the development and adoption of research data management infrastructure, working through the Data Management Committee and administration support services on campus.

The successful candidate will contribute to the Data Stewardship Pathway through both research and teaching undergrad and post-graduate students, and will be expected to demonstrate an awareness of current data developments, trends, challenges, emerging fields and a positive commitment to research. As the School offers an online degree program in addition to on-campus programs, candidates with complementary expertise and experience in educational technologies are encouraged to apply.

Candidates applying for the position(s) are expected to hold an earned Doctorate or the equivalent in academic or professional experience. Applicants should present a record of effective teaching, research, and related scholarly activities. Electronic applications should be sent to

https://ischoolatpitt.wufoo.com/forms/faculty-position-in-data-stewardship/ .

Applications should include a cover letter, curriculum vitae, research statement, teaching statement, and the names, addresses (with e-mail), and telephone numbers of three references. For full consideration, applications must be received by February 15, 2017.

Dr. Richard Cox, Chair of Search Committee

School of Computing and Information

University of Pittsburgh

 

Further information regarding the School and this position can be found at http://www.ischool.pitt.edu/news/facultyopenings.php

Pittsburgh’s industrial past has given way to an enterprising and vibrant present. Affordable living, world-class universities, distinctive neighborhoods, growing industries, and an abundance of leisure activities create a quality of life in Pittsburgh that is virtually unmatched. Pittsburgh is consistently ranked in Rand McNally’s Top Ten Most Livable Cities in North America.

The University of Pittsburgh is an Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity Employer Minorities/Women/Vets/Disabled.

 

 

 

A Final Thought for 2016

Novelist Julian Barnes, in his collection of essays on art, made this interesting observation about one artist: “The life of such an artist is one of high anxiety and self-doubt, combined with ceaseless work which sometimes leads to nothing” (Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art [London: Jonathan Cape, 2015], p. 97). As a painter (landscapes and seascapes), I certainly concur with this assessment. Probably only one of every three or four paintings I attempt are ones worth keeping, giving away, or placing in a gallery. But it is also worth stating that this is how I view my academic work. The pleasure of research and teaching, companion functions of a university professor, occurs when success is achieved, and it is not always achieved. I will have ample time to reflect about this during 2017; one year from today is my official retirement and I will be working on wrapping up some projects, shelving others for good, and contemplating what I will be doing in the future.

Happy New Year!