Book Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie



A couple of weeks ago I went to Las Vegas, NV for the American Library Association Annual Conference, which was a huge blast. I still have major conference hangover from all the amazing sessions I went to on rare books and science librarianship, and from seeing STAN LEE IN PERSON!!

Aside from the amazing sessions, it was great to catch up with friends from the UT iSchool and Libraries. Two of my iSchool buddies and I stayed at Caesar’s Palace, which was pretty hilarious for about two days and then got really old.

I also LOVED the exhibitors hall because: BOOKS. This was my first ALA Annual, so I really had no idea how huge the hall was going to be, or what people would be bringing. I expected lots of booths for vendors like Elsevier, Springer, etc. and they were there. I got this adorable caricature from the good folks at Thompson Reuters, and then I discovered that publishers were there giving out free books. I will never pass up free books and it’s a good thing I drove from Irvine to Las Vegas because I walked out with 25 new books. The majority of them were ARCs for upcoming books, including the one I’m going to write my inaugural book review post about.

Please note: I’m discussing an unproofed ARC in this post, so please keep that in mind. I will be checking my quotations and revising as necessary when my “real” copy arrives after the book is officially published in September. There will also be spoilers, so beware! Continue reading


Librarians as Part of the Third Culture (and Other Thoughts)

Happy Blogversary to me!

To celebrate, I thought I’d post a little bit about some thoughts I’ve been having since I started my job at UC Irvine, particularly about the peculiar nature of my liaison assignments. For those who don’t remember, I was appointed to be the Research Librarian for the departments of Mathematics, Physics & Astronomy, and Classics. This puts me in the rather interesting (but not unique) position of being both a Humanities and a Sciences librarian at the same time. This odd combination means that I straddle the fence between the Humanities and the Sciences, and (I think) gives me a unique perspective on both worlds.

In 1959 British scientist C.P. Snow delivered a Rede Lecture at Cambridge University called The Two Cultures, in which he described the increasing demarcation of the intellectual regions of the arts from the sciences, a trend which has continued over the 50 years since the lecture. In libraries, we talk a lot in generalizations about the differences in the patterns of library activity that we observe in faculty on either side of the divide—humanities researchers use more books and science researchers tend to use more journals; humanities researchers prefer to browse a collection, while science researchers know the specific thing that they want and want it now. I’m in a particular spot to observe and think about these differences since I serve both sides of the divide, and I like to think that it makes me a more broad-minded librarian.

In 1964 in a second edition of the book of The Two Cultures, Snow described a third culture where those of the arts communicated directly with those of the sciences, but I see a third culture as the liminal borderlands between the two where humanities researchers use traditionally scientific, data-driven methods to conduct their research, and where scientists turn their eyes upon humanities topics. A great example of what this third culture, for me, is this incredible lecture by physicist Peter J. Lu that I got to see at UCI last year. Lu and his team used mathematical methods to examine girih (geometric star-and-polygon patterns in medieval Islamic architecture) and observed that after 1200 C.E. girih patterns were reconceived as tessellations of a special set of equilateral polygons (girih tiles) decorated with lines, which enabled the production of increasingly complex repeating periodic girih patterns.

I’ve been thinking about all these things a lot over the past eight months, and I believe librarians are the natural denizens of this third cultural space, especially librarians like myself who come to the sciences from the humanities. At UCI, we’re beginning to explore how we can support Digital Humanities researchers on campus, and some of our librarians have been involved in “cross-cultural” research (such as Dance researchers looks at Nursing topics). Since I’ve looked so intensely at research on either side of the divide, I feel like sometimes I have good ideas or a different perspective to offer that’s maybe beneficial to the discussions that we’re having. (Or maybe not, you’d have to ask my coworkers.) I wish more librarians had the opportunity to spend some time serving as a liaison for “the other side.”

However, this position is not without its challenges: it took me a while to understand how to code switch between helping a humanities researcher and helping a science researcher quickly, and while I understand scientific topics on a conceptual level I still look at physical equations and think “woah that’s a lot of random numbers a Greek letters.”

Over the next couple of years I hope to take advantage of the many professional development opportunities there are for science librarians to become better at helping science researchers (like the various Science Bootcamps), but I also want to look at how to get more young librarians with humanities backgrounds to consider science librarianship and how to improve the opportunities for continuing education for those of us who come to science without formal training as scientists.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with all this, yet, but I hope it will be interesting.

Middle English as the Impenetrable Other in “Sleepy Hollow”

I’m not much of one for watching new TV shows, for a variety of reasons, but something about the hype among my friends surrounding Sleepy Hollow caught my attention and now, I have to admit, I am completely hooked. It doesn’t seem to strike most people as the type of show that could actually be really enjoyable—the best description of it that I’ve seen says “It’s like if Supernatural and Hannibal met and had a baby, and then Sherlock and Fringe met and had a baby then those two babies had a baby then that baby had a baby with Once Upon a Time,” to which I would add  “And then THAT baby had a baby with National Treasure,” and between all those babies it seems like Sleepy Hollow should be a poorly written hot mess.

But it isn’t! Surprisingly!

The basic premise is about the adventures of Ichabod Crane and Lt. Abbie Mills. Ichabod is a Professor of History from Merton College, Oxford (awesome!) who fought for George Washington (wait what) and had a spell cast on him in 1781, only to awaken in 2013 and be completely dumbfounded at the sales tax on donut holes. Lt. Mills works for the Sleepy Hollow Sheriff’s office and has been derailed from her intended course towards Quantico to become an FBI profiler by the events of the series’ pilot episode. Somewhere along that interesting new spin on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, though, the show took a sharp left turn away from “amusing alternative to clearing my Netflix queue of a Monday evening” towards “… wait a minute, they’re speaking Middle English?!??!?”

There will be SPOILERS for Episode 5, “John Doe,” below this picture! Do not proceed if you do not want to read SPOILERS!

“I’m sorry, did you say Middle English?”

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Are iPads Paper?

The title to this post may seem like a strange question—I mean, of course iPads aren’t paper; they’re made of metal and glass and wiring, and not from wood pulp. iPads are the latest development in the evolution of computers, one of a string of developments that have revolutionized the way the world works in many fundamental ways over the past thirty or so years, while paper has remained fundamentally the same for many hundreds of years. So, is an iPad paper? No… but also, maybe, yes.

Last night a question was asked, and answered, that I think represents a major moment in the acceptance and use of technology in corporate and governmental environments. Many better writers than I am are discussing the events surrounding Wendy Davis’ filibuster on the floor of the Texas state senate, but I want to talk about an exchange that happened at slightly before nine o’clock last night when the question arose about whether Wendy Davis could read from her iPad during the course of her filibuster and it was determined that, yes, for the purposes of the current legislative process, an iPad counted as paper.

Although this wasn’t something that many people commented on, it caused a bit of a flutter amongst my iSchool friends. At the UT iSchool, one of our core courses included discussion of the infamous “Is an antelope a document?” article by Michael Buckland, which asks questions and encourages its readers to think in the broadest possible way about what constitutes a document.

In the iSchool, we’ve been trained and conditioned to question the fundamental building blocks of information, with the idea that we, as information professionals, are going to be involved at the most basic level with whatever changes in technology and legitimacy begins to arise in the world of documents and the media used to transmit information. The exchange between Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and Sen. Ellis was a teaching/learning moment for iSchoolers around the country.

But what are the implications of this seemingly off-the-cuff exchange? What will the long-term effects be? Can iPads be considered paper in future governmental proceedings? Should they?

One of the things about iPads—and Kindles and Nooks and other tablets/eReaders—that people consistently point to in discussions about their benefits is their ability to store (or access) much larger quantities of books and documents than a single human person can carry around. If I printed out all of the PDFs, books, and other documents that I have loaded on my iPad (or stored in my Dropbox folders, which I can access via my iPad), I’d probably have far more material than I could carry around without a handtruck. I also feel like I’ve saved countless trees by using my iPad to read and annotate articles rather than printing them out and highlighting them like I did as an undergrad and during my first (pre-iPad era) master’s.

Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth during her filibuster of SB 5. Austin, Texas (Photo: Chris Fox, 1080 KRLD)

The benefit to me of considering an iPad as paper in official governmental proceedings is that it can similarly reduce the environmental impact of printing and carrying so much paper. When Wendy Davis was filibustering yesterday, she had a binder full of the testimonies of women who had hoped to speak before the Texas state House of Representatives about the proposed legislation, as well as other relevant analyses and contextual information. Most senators had their copies of the relevant senate rulebooks and other documents that were relevant to the questions they asked Sen. Davis or the points of order or parliamentary inquiries that they raised over the course of the debate. That’s a lot of paper that could be saved, especially since things like the rules books are frequently revised and republished, and are likely to be revised in light of the rulings yesterday regarding giving aid to a senator during a filibuster and, yes, about whether an iPad constituted paper.

iPads are gaining ground as paper-equivalents in other areas, too: the U.S. Air Force and some major commercial airlines are beginning to replace the weighty bags of paper-based manuals and maps that pilots and other crew members carry with iPad apps designed for the purpose. Electronic flight bags stored on iPads are set to revolutionize air travel in a small but meaningful way: by removing the need to carry 35+ lbs of paper materials, it’s been estimated that “a minimum of 400,000 gallons and $1.2 million of fuel annually” can be saved, according to American Airlines, which is the first major national carrier to make the switch. Crucially to the topic at hand, the Electronic Flight Bags have been recognized by the FAA as being the equivalent of paper flight bags.

Of course, one of the major concerns that needs to be considered is about how secure iPads can be and whether they can compete with more traditional means when it comes to transporting important government documents. But doctors, bound by federal privacy laws, have been using iPads to access patient records for years, and storing information in paper form does not necessarily lessen the chance that it will be lost, stolen, or destroyed.

So, are iPads paper? Are antelopes documents? It’s a very exciting time to be an information professional and get to witness a sea change like this in how we regard information media.

Electronic Resources & Libraries 2013: Notes from “The Social Economy of Open Access”

This year I’m getting the amazing opportunity to attend Electronic Resources & Libraries conference for FREE by being a volunteer. (For any library students looking for a way to attend local conferences at reduced rates, ask the organizers about volunteering—not only is it a great way to get access to a conference, you also get a lot of great networking opportunities by working at, for example, the registration/information desk and meeting and greeting presenters or vendors.)

I’m also doing a lot of tweeting about the conference and engaging in conversations. ER&L is very active about promoting discussions and live tweetings through resources such as TweetChat (I’m in the #erl13 room). A lot of people seemed energized and excited about my quotes and musings about the session on “The Social Economy of Open Access,” so here are some of the notes I took this afternoon:

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Oppa Data Style: Using Data to Track the Popularity of PSY

Every once in a while I get the opportunity to write about something for class credit that I passionately love in my non-academic life.  Previously this has meant getting to write about the works of Alexandre Dumas for my senior seminar on Robin Hood literature or talking about how video games incorporate medievalisms in new and interesting ways, but sometimes this means getting to write about things that are really esoteric like the viral video sensation “Gangnam Style” by the South Korean pop artist PSY.  I got this weird and wonderful chance today when The Economist published an article examining the data behind “Gangnam Style”s viewer data on YouTube, which makes it prime material for a blog post for the Digital Curation class I mentioned in my last post.  And because I think this is one of the most fun things I’ve ever written (and I’m still stunned and delighted that I got to talk about “Gangnam Style” for class), I’m going to archive it here for posterity.

Soon there will be a blog post about the amazing experience I had at the International Seminar on the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts in Copenhagen last week, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the amazing things I saw and heard there, so in the mean time please enjoy:

On July 15, 2012, the South Korean pop singer PSY released his sixth studio album with the song “Gangnam Style” as its first single. By September, the official video released on Youtube was averaging almost 10 million views per day and the related Gangnam Style mania was being covered and analyzed by a variety of mainstream news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal (as previous linked) and The Guardian (“What’s so funny about Gangnam Style?”). The South Korean pop song spawned a huge number of parodies (as of writing, YouTube returned over 16,500 hits for the search phrase “gangnam style parody”) with parody topics ranging from “UMD Library Style” to “Klingon Style” to “Deadpool Style” (for even more Gangnam-related videos, check out The Week‘s “Gangnam Style: the 11 best parodies of the viral video” and The Wall Street Journal‘s “5 Must-See Gangnam Style Response Videos”).

Needless to say, the overwhelming response of the American public to a South Korean pop song about a district of Seoul very few Americans could probably find on a map has been unprecedented even in the era of YouTube-to-famous viral music videos (by contrast, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video had earned 144 million videos during its first initial storm of popularity while the official PSY music video on YouTube has over 531 million views at the time of writing). The sensational storm caused by the video has necessarily meant that a great deal of attention and thought has been directed to understanding the phenomenal popularity of the song and its singer, and that’s where the data comes in.

In “The data behind Gangnam Style: the rise and rise of PSY,” writers at The Economist take a look at the data surrounding the video’s popularity and discover that Gangnam Style isn’t “a flash in the pan.” The writers break down the video’s 531+ million views as “At roughly four minutes of video, that amounts to 36m hours of phantom horseback-riding dance moves, which equates to 4,100 continuous years.” This may make Gangnam Style the most popular and influential viral video yet.

But who’s watching it? The Economist‘s writers identify the “top demographic category of fans” as “girls aged 13 to 17, followed by boys of the same ages and then young men 18 to 24.” However, this raw data only tells part of the story since some of the most popular spin-off videos are produced by people outside these key demographics and since it would seem to indicate that enjoyment of Gangnam Style is restricted to the young and predominantly male—as the article points out, however, figures from outside these key demographics such as Ban Ki Moon are showing off their style moves.

Another article by SPIN (“How Did PSY’s Gangnam Style Become the No. 1 Rap Song in the Country?”) blame Billboard’s antiquated and “useless” chart methodology for not accounting for digital downloads and other metrics in the way they (previously, it has recently been changed) determine what songs are the most popular, which were previously only determined by radio airplay data.

In the end, however, I think that while the data collected by The Economist and others will be important to researchers hundreds of years from now who will chart the inexorable spread of Gangnam Style’s influence in world culture, I don’t think raw (or even analyzed) data is ever going to be able to tell the whole story of exactly why this weird and wonderful video has so effectively captured the hearts and imaginations of so many people around the world.

For more in-depth analysis of Gangnam Style and the culture and artist that created it, The Atlantic‘s “Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation” is an exceptionally interesting read.

New Frontiers in Journalism: the Development of the Guardian’s “Data Journalism”

One of the classes I’m taking this semester seems likely to push me outside my “comfort zone” of book history studies and “traditional” library skills like cataloguing.  It’s called “Digital Curation” and it focuses on the active and on-going management of digital artifacts through their lifecycle, particularly by maintaining and adding value to a trusted body of digital information for current and future use.  I initially signed up for it because I thought it would complement my class on Digitisation, which is a practical course teaching both technical digitisation skills and digitisation project management (including grant-writing, something I am really looking forward to!), but after working through the readings and assignments on “big data” management this week, I’m also excited about the class because of the emphasis on data collection, analysis and visualisation.

As part of the class, we have to write blog posts each week on a topic related to this week’s readings, and this week I got to talk about one of my favourite websites, the Guardian’s Datablog, so I thought I would repost the text of it here:

In August 2011, London experienced some of the worst rioting it had seen in a generation.  Following the shooting of a young man in north London, the rioting spread across the city and to other areas of England over the course of four days.  To learn more about the events and timeline of the riots, the BBC maintains this excellent website with archived BBC coverage of the riots.

In the wake of the riots, the Guardian newspaper’s online editors undertook a massive collection of data generated by the rioters and victims of the rioters’ activities, and began to analyse it in cooperation with the London School of Economics.  They began collecting data by sending teams of online journalists to the London courts to document the public information related to each rioter that was arrested and charged with an offense: name, occupation, home address, crime committed.  They also began collecting data publicly available through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and publishing their findings as part of their (then) new Guardian Datablog and, eventually, as its own collection of articles and analysis: Reading the Riots.

By doing deep analysis of the data they collected, the researchers at the London School of Economics and editors and journalists at the Guardian were able to eventually begin drawing broad conclusions on the social and economic factors that contributed to the widespread and violent nature of the London riots, but the development of Reading the Riots also contributed to the Guardian’s realization that large data sets can make good journalism and led to the establishing of the Guardian’s Data Journalism site and creation of the Guardian Datastore, a webscale repository of journalistic data collected or curated by the Guardian.  Much like using Twitter to track the cholera epidemic in Haiti, data journalism tracks trends in data generated by social media to create analysis and visualisations related to major world events, such as the Olympics or public elections.

But is the Guardian’s capitalization on data collection and analysis as forward-thinking as all that?  It certainly sets them apart from other traditional newspaper companies in Britain, such as the Times, but does it presage a sea change in journalism as we know it?  Is data analysis “real” journalism, and do the articles produced by the Guardian’s Datablog deserve to be on the front page of the website?

Quote That: Positivity Edition

From Quote That: Positivity Edition:

Libraries as band aids may be obsolete, but that is not why we need libraries. We need libraries so we can fix our education system, so we can fix our economy, so we can fix our democracies yes. But we need libraries even more to discover new knowledge not found in any textbook. We need libraries to create whole new opportunities for innovation. We need libraries to give our communities a voice and power in the working of government. Libraries will never be obsolete so long as our communities dream, and strive, and work to ensure a world of insurmountable opportunities.

– David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Libraries are Obsolete

I love this quote, even out of context.  Yes, yes, yes, libraries will never be obsolete!

In The (Local) News: Medieval Spectacles

Micah Erwin, a UT iSchool alumnus and fellow medievalist who now works at the Harry Ransom Center, has written this amazing blog post about the impression of a pair of medieval spectacles that was found on a bit of medieval manuscript waste that had been used to bind an early modern printed book:

Early printed book contains rare evidence of medieval spectacles

While conducting a survey of manuscript waste found in early printed books I noticed a faint reddish-brown impression of a pair of spectacles on the rear parchment endpapers of a copy of the Opera of Fr. Luigi di Granata. The endpapers in this book comprise a piece of parchment taken from a page in a medieval manuscript (it was a common practice in the hand-press period to reuse old disbound parchment manuscripts for endpapers, pastedowns, stubbs, or spine linings).

What a fascinating and exciting thing to find in a book here in Austin!  Tidbits like these are what make medieval studies so exciting to me.  Medieval history can be so amazing because, as Barbara Tuchman noted in the title of her book, it is a distant mirror of ourselves and our own time. Taking away the specific issues of banking crises, global warming, and what have you, we’re still struggling with some of the same fundamental problems that they were 600 years ago: sickness, malnutrition, insufficient housing, poverty, ignorance, superstition, prejudice and governmental selfishness.

And yet in the midst of all the filth and horror they contemplated the divine in ways that we just can’t. In Lincoln Cathedral there are carvings and bosses so high up on the ceiling that they are almost inaccessible, even to modern scaffolding. Why are they there? Why did anyone go to all the trouble of making them when they couldn’t even be seen or appreciated? They were made for the sheer joy and love of making beautiful things, even if the only person that could see them was God. Perhaps especially if God was the only one who could see them. People just don’t do that any more. The medieval world created so much beauty, and so much of it has survived! What’s going to survive from our time? New buildings built on the UT campus are designed to last 50 years now. Paper’s gotten crappier and crappier and no one can know how well eBooks and eReaders and other electronic media is going to survive. Medieval people lived with such dignity and inventiveness, and I just don’t see anything like their creations when I look around me now. I think that’s why I love the middle ages so much.

I think the similarities between us and medieval people get lost in translation so easily, because people focus on all the cosmetics that make our time different from them. But nothing has fundamentally changed since then! We’re still doing a lot of the same things! I mean, Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes with a modern translation could so easily be marketed as the next big self-help book for corporate managers. (In fact… why hasn’t it? Hm.) We’re still wearing spectacles (and leaving them sitting on open books!) and we still have fingerprints.  For all our technology, we’re really not that different.

Apples and Oranges: eBooks and the Justice Department

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the Justice Department’s decision to sue Apple and several major book publishers who are accused of “price fixing” eBooks. There’s a lot of debate, naturally, about Apple’s business practices and their market domination of music with iTunes (not to mention Amazon’s equally questionable business practices) and also about what the “real” price of an eBook should be (should it be more in conjunction with a print edition or should it cost less because it costs less to produce?). Personally, I side with the camp that finds Amazon more at fault than Apple, for setting prices that undercut both publishers AND authors, as nicely summed up in this New York Times article “Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis” by David Carr.

By coincidence, this is the week in my Collection Management class that we are discussing legal, copyright, and ethical issues in libraries, and one of our readings brought up this Supreme Court decision from the 1984 Sony Corp. of American v. University City Studios:

The monopoly privileges that Congress may authorize are neither unlimited nor primarily designed to provide a special private benefit. Rather, the limited grant is a means by which an important public purpose may be achieved. It is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of a special reward, and to allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited period of exclusive control has expired.

It seems to me that this quote speaks to the heart of the debate about eBooks and the battle between Amazon and Apple, and I think it strengthens Carr’s argument that allowing Amazon to create a minority in which eBook prices are artificially driven down to allow Amazon to drive Kindle sales is contrary to the Supreme Court’s position in 1984. Granted, the current Supreme Court Justices may think differently, but I believe it is wrong for the Justice Department to allow Amazon to create an almost state-approved monopoly that does little to protect the meager profits made of authors. In the long run, if authors can’t make enough money by writing to support future creative activities, won’t the number of books available eventually start to dry up? Or worse, be nothing but endless fanfiction-turned-legitimate-novel Twilight spinoffs?