Working for The Man

I recently wrote a paper for an Information Technologies class on OCR, or Optical Character Recognition—software that allows a computer to “read” text. It works fine for things printed in the past fifty or so years, but is pretty useless when it comes to older stuff. Yellowed pages, faded text and old typefaces still confound technology. Enter reCAPTCHA, which uses crowdsourcing to convert the text in these documents to digital (searchable, cut/copy/pastable, etc.) text. Everyone has encountered CAPTCHAs—the tests ticketing websites and the like give us to prove we’re not spambots. Many CAPTCHAs use randomly generated jumbles of letter and numbers as challenges, but reCAPTCHA uses words that OCR can’t identify from old books and newspapers. More specifically, it uses one word that has been identified and one that hasn’t. If you type the one the computer knows correctly, it assumes you’re also right about the unknown word. The program waits until a word has been keyed in the same way by at least three people, at which point it considers the word identified.

Pretty cool, right? Crowdsourcing works! We are preserving information and making it accessible! These ubiquitous online challenges, which are merely irritating when you get them right, and infuriating when you don’t (I am not a robot,  goddamn it!!), are actually serving the greater good!

Or are they? reCAPTCHA is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn, a Carnegie Mellon professor, but since 2007 the program has been owned and controlled by Google. The words that we identify are slowly but surely contributing to the digitization of the archives of the New York Times and the Google books project. Helping out the evil empire that is Google always made me slightly uneasy, but how am I supposed to feel about it now that they are in the business of selling e-books? As far as I can tell, the books they’re selling in their new eBookstore are not the same texts that reCAPTCHA is helping to digitize. But this is not a voluntary program, the way Wikipedia is—we are basically forced to take part in if we want to continue our day-to-day business online—and it is serving a for-profit entity. Frankly, it feels a little sinister to me.

When I first found out about reCAPTCHA, I was surprised that Google wasn’t making more of an effort to publicize the project. Wouldn’t they want people to know that their time and effort wasn’t being wasted every time they had to enter a string of letters into a textbox? Now, though, I understand why they’re not shouting about it from the rooftops. They’ve essentially turned everyone with an internet connection into an unpaid laborer without them even knowing it.

There is one thing to come out of the reCAPTCHA project that I have only good feelings about: CAPTCHArt. This is a website of comics that people have created based on the challenges. It is random, childish, often inappropriate, and delightful. See below.




The More Things Change…

The archival collection I’m currently processing consists of the papers of the treasurer of a now-defunct library association. In it I found a clipping from the New York Times, dated October of 1974. The article describes a shift in the focus of libraries, away from books and towards multimedia resources. What cracked me up was the note written in pen in the margin: “Are there any books in this library?” The conversation about the “future” of libraries in the age of the electronic resource has been going on now for thirty-six years.

This reminded me of my boyfriend, who fumed for weeks about the overhaul of the New York Times Magazine…until he discovered this letter to the editor, printed in 1993 following a redesign:

“Now you’ve done it. You have blown away the last vestiges of familiarity in this unstable world by changing the format of the Magazine.” – Patricia Escobar, Los Angeles

As long as there have been times, they have been a-changing. But by all means, go on lamenting.

The Artist’s Job (And the Librarian’s, Too)

“Anonymity was the enemy, reducing everyone to an integer on a piece of paper. The artist’s job was to overcome this blankness by naming things. Like Adam in Eden, he must find names for every object, animate and inanimate. He must invent a language full of racy particulars, finding the identities of everything. This was the imagination’s endless and desperately important work.”
– Jay Parini, Benjamin’s Crossing

Ten Thousand Days of What I Ate for Dinner

A friend from school recently posted a link to a New Yorker blog post by Roz Chast called “The Dinner Diaries.” In it, she talks about a friend of hers who found, after her father had died, that he had spent the past thirty years meticulously cataloging every meal he ate on 3”x5” cards.

Chast makes an interesting point, that this isn’t actually as unusual as it might seem at first: “These days…it’s easy to take a picture of your dinner plate, upload it from your cell phone, and share it with the world. But my friend’s father began his journal on a typewriter, long before the Web. It was a private project that required a commitment—or a compulsion.” I know plenty of people who do exactly what she describes, posting descriptions or images on Facebook or Twitter of meals they have eaten. Most people do this only occasionally, journalling dinner party triumphs or visits to fancy restaurants, but I do have one facebook friend who photographs and posts his dinner nightly. I’m still fighting the urge to send him a message letting him know that a cell phone camera has a tendency to cast a rather unappetizing glow on what I’m sure is perfectly delicious (or at least edible) in real life.

While my immediate reaction was that the kind of self-archiving Chast describes is a pretty clear indication of at least mild insanity, the truth is that it is arguably less crazy to keep this record for yourself than to think that the rest of the world might be as interested as you are in how many times you’ve eaten poached chicken in the past three decades. If this information or even just the action of keeping track of it was useful to the man who did it (to keep “track of the passage of time, or [to organize] his experience, just as other people sort their clothes by color, or alphabetize their books, or write down their dreams,” as Chast says), then who are we to say that his collection is less valuable than any other?

Personal value aside, though, there is no clear delineation between things that are insane to keep and things that would be a tragedy to let go of. We can never say for certain what information or which pieces of paper might be useful to someone and which have no business continuing to take up space on a shelf.

I’m currently working as an archival processing intern in the rare book and manuscript library of a major university. The first collection I processed consisted of the papers of a wealthy turn-of-the-century New York family, mostly personal letters pertaining to mundane matters. Three archival boxes, full of pages of pleasantries. For me, the most interesting part of the collection were the love letters, spanning seven years, sent to the father of the family (then an unmarried student) from a woman who was not to become his wife. In the first, it is obvious they have only just met; by the last few letters, there is a lot of “I just can’t do this anymore” stuff. I could imagine a Hollywood romance film (à la The Notebook) about them that would use the frame of the archivist, pulling them one by one out of their dusty envelopes, as a device.

The next collection I worked on was that of a high-society playboy who fancied himself a playwright; aside from the pedigree certificate for his dog, the collection consisted mostly of various drafts of plays that were never produced. The most interesting thing about working with this collection were the newspaper stories that I encountered while doing research for a biographical note, describing the scandals related to the playboy/wright’s many marriages to women from well-to-do families and to the public’s realization that the one play of his that was ever produced (scripts of which were not in the collection I was working on) was brazenly plagiarized from works by Oscar Wilde. Someone should write a play about him.

It’s not as though these collections have no merit. But though they could be the stuff of good fiction, I’m not sure what scholarly project they might serve. And there is perhaps a researcher out there for whom 10,000 index cards of main courses and side dishes would be the stuff of dreams. Such an idea is not even particularly far-fetched. Food history has become a discipline in its own right; and institutions such as NYU are building collections to support work in the field. This collection could provide evidence of changing trends in what Americans were eating over a period of time, for example.

The point is, some of what we as archivists have saved may never prove useful to anyone. It may never even be looked at. And so much of what we’ve let be lost may have been exactly what someone is or will be looking for. There isn’t any way to predict with 100% accuracy, or anywhere near it. It’s kind of heartbreaking, when you think about it.

Also, I can’t remember what I ate for dinner on Tuesday. Maybe this guy was on to something.

Is the MLS still relevant? Or, what am I doing here?

(Note: This is a paper I wrote for my Introduction to Information Professions class in my first semester of library school.)

In recent years, the question of whether or not having a master’s degree is still important in the field of librarianship has been widely debated. The MLS degree itself has transformed, adding an “I” to become the MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science), and in some cases losing the “L” all together. The University of Texas at Austin for example, offers an MSIS, or Master of Science of Information Studies. Many degree programs have gone online; of the 62 ALA-accredited programs, 19 offer degrees that can be completed without ever setting foot in a classroom. As the field of librarianship has become the field of information science, fighting to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving information landscape, it makes sense that the professional training for the field would undergo some changes of its own. There are some, though, who would have us do away with the MLS all together.

On her blog “The Librarian of Fortune,” Mary Ellen Bates recounted hearing “the head of a large corporate library…[say] that as she reviews resumes for info pro positions, she counts an M.L.S. degree as a point against an applicant” (Bates). As I understand it, for the woman who made this statement and others like her, the MLS represents two problems: theoretical as opposed to practical knowledge, and a background in outdated traditions and skills at a time when innovation and change is crucial for libraries. These arguments against the degree are not entirely unreasonable, if greatly exaggerated.

It is true that what is taught in MLS programs does not cover everything and must be supplemented with experience. I once explained to a friend that the most important things I was learning in library school were the names of things I would have to learn elsewhere. This wasn’t a complaint, however. It is important to master the vocabulary of the profession and to understand the skills that a career in libraries will demand. A program that requires only twelve courses to complete couldn’t possibly teach mastery of every one of these skills, but if it makes its students aware of what they are, it has already achieved a great deal.

It is also true that the curricula of master’s programs are not in all cases being updated at the same rate that the field is moving forward. Many schools are making a real effort to reflect the progression of the field, as evidenced by the renaming of degrees. But most (Pratt included) do not offer nearly enough courses in digital and web technologies, to name only one area of knowledge that has become crucial to the successful information professional. Again, though, the MLS isn’t really about learning skills. If anything, it is about learning the philosophy that forms the backbone of this profession: to vastly oversimplify, that information is good, and that people should have access to it. It is true that we have reached a point where libraries must innovate and evolve, but that fundamental understanding of why they exist hasn’t changed.

While it is true, then, that the MLS has its limitations, to say that having the degree makes a person less qualified to work as an information professional is absurd. To have a background in and understanding of the long-standing traditions of librarianship—even those that are outdated—does not necessarily indicate that an individual will be resistant to or incapable of breaking with these traditions (though there are certainly some who are). If anything, knowing what exactly we are moving away from makes us better equipped to do so. As the old saying goes, one has to know the rules before one can break them.

In “Protect Professionalism,” an editorial in Library Journal, John Berry explains that the MLS degree has been criticized as being “little more than an indoctrination and orientation to library values, customs, and jargon.” This is actually not an inaccurate description of what these programs offer, but this “orientation” is hardly something to be derided as insignificant. I believe that it is exactly this alignment with the goals, attitude, and ethics, and fluency in the language of librarianship that defines the professional.

A reference librarian who I spoke with recently offered her opinion on the degree, which highlights another thing that these programs offer students: knowledge of themselves. As she sees it, the one or two years spent completing the master’s is more than anything else a time to determine what kind of information professional you want to be. There are so many possibilities, and it is important to assess your own personality in order to choose the right niche. Someone who is excellent at information architecture, for example, may be ill suited to reference service. Before you can become a professional, it is crucial to know certain things about yourself: what excites you, what bores you to tears, what you’re good at, what would best be left to someone else.

Berry also talks in his editorial about whether the MLS is merely “a ‘union card’ to get into a closed shop.” The library administrator who prefers not to hire those with the degree seems to indicate that it isn’t, or that if it once was, it no longer is. There are certainly jobs, such as information technology and highly specialized positions, for which another degree instead of or in addition to the MLS might make a candidate more qualified. There is also a place in the library for people without advanced degrees, though one hopes that administrators are being honest about what that place is and not replacing degreed librarians with paraprofessionals out of purely budgetary concern.

The matter of professionals and paraprofessionals and the MLS versus other advanced degrees points to an important question that we must ask when discussing whether or not the MLS is still relevant: relevant to whom? I have argued that the degree is not just relevant but critical to the next generation of librarians, insofar as it provides them with the fundamentals—the skeleton on which they must build the body of knowledge needed to be successful information professionals. But whether or not the degree is relevant to those making hiring decisions in libraries is not a point that can be argued. In answer to that question, all I can say is: I hope so.

Works cited:

Bates, Mary Ellen. (8 September 2010). “Is an MLS still relevant?” The Librarian of Fortune. Retrieved from:

Berry, John. (1 November 2003) “Protect Professionalism.” Library Journal. Retrieved from: