October 2007 Transcript: Ed Valauskas

AJ: Welcome to First Monday Podcast I’m AJ Hannah

Joy: And I’m Joy Austria. This month we’re talking to First Monday Chief Editor Ed Valauskas who recently finished his tenure as Follettt Chair at Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The Follett Chair is one of only a few endowed chairs for librarianship in the nation.

AJ: He gave his last lecture as Follett Chair entitled The Library is Dead...Long Live the Library. We sat down with him to talk about the content of this lecture, Google and gumbo. Thanks for joining us Ed. Summarize where you want to see the library in the next five to twenty years and give us the general philosophy of Ed.

Ed: (Laughter) General philosophy of Ed? Libraries certainly have lots of potential to take advantage of technology. They haven’t always done that. And I think there are some tools that are available with the Internet and with the web that allow libraries to create very personalized organizations of information for the individual. Which is something libraries have always thought about doing but never had the technological means to do.

I think the other advantage we have now is we have a new generation of librarians that are technologically more sophisticated more willing to experiment, more willing to try these technologies are see what happens. In the past there was a generation of information professionals, librarians, who weren’t always ready to take a risk who were afraid of what the consequences would be of making a mistake. I think with new technologies it’s fine to make a mistake because there’s another new technology that’s coming right around the corner that everybody will forget about what mistake you made and move on with that new technology.

So I think it’s an interesting combination of new generation working with new technologies, new technologies themselves are much more plastic much more pliable to manipulation by a variety of individuals. They generally cost a great deal less than any previous new technologies that have come on the scene.

AJ: With the bottom dollar being the deciding factor for taking chances, how can libraries take these chances on new technologies and still survive and remain viable in the public?

Ed: It’s important for libraries to make clear to their audiences, their boards, their publics that there’s a risk in using these new technologies. That it’s the same risk individuals face. Individuals twenty years ago, some people bought a beta max player and used it and thought it was the greatest thing. In fact I still have a beta max player! And I love it I still have some beta tapes that I love playing on it. But you recognize that that was perhaps not the right decision and you move on. What’s true for individuals is also true for organizations.

I think the public has to understand that if they want libraries to move forward with these technologies there has to be some license to make a mistake. And that there has to be some forgiveness if it costs some money and it’s money that essentially goes down the drain. Because in a sense the library is experimenting for everyone else. There are libraries that have experimented with e–books. In many cases they’re taking the technological and financial risks for the community in that experimentation with e–books, with the players and the different formats of these e–books. And that’s great because there’s lots of individuals who don’t have to take that risk. So why not have the library do that?

AJ: How can open access and library consortium help towards that?

Ed: Open access is a promise to make all sorts of information readily available. It’s not only information that’s in science and technical journals and books, but in lots of other areas. It extends to software, it extends to the kinds of information that really belongs to you that you want to manipulate with other kinds of data.

And so, open access ties into a great deal of experimentation libraries are doing. There are a number of libraries that are experimenting with open access, open source solutions. Some libraries are trying to work on creating non–proprietary, open source solutions way to administer their library, to have an online catalog, to deal with collection development. In many cases there are a number of libraries experimenting with supporting open access publications, supporting journals, supporting books that are openly and readily available and that ties in very closely with this notion of experimenting. Of being able to take new technologies and see what you can do with them to provide new kinds of information or old information in new formats to your publics.

I think with new technologies it’s fine to make a mistake because there’s another new technology that’s coming right around the corner that everybody will forget what mistake you made and move on with that new technology.

Joy: Is this notion of experimentation or being “fearless about technology” something you wanted to impart on your students? Was that one of your goals as Follett Chair?

Ed: When I started as the Follett Chair I had sorta a metaphilosophy of what I was trying to do was to bring my experiences with open access and open source and all these open ideas, the whole notion of openess, and bring them to the classroom to students in a variety of ways. To talk about how to create a scholarly journal, to talk about looking at rare books and how those rare books can be made more readily available by using a variety of scanning technologies to make them openly accessible so lots of people can enjoy them.

So it’s something I’ve tried to do in a variety of classes. And I want to continue to do that because I think that way we can, as an educator I can help prepare this generation of experimentalists who are going to be working in libraries who are going to take new technologies in ways I can’t even imagine and providing new resources that will be available to everyone.

AJ: In your last Follett Lecture you had talked about the parish...

Ed: Right, Plaquemines Parish, beautiful Plaquemines Parish.

AJ: While Katrina was a tragedy restructuring after the hurricane has provided the opportunity for a lot of these communities to start over in more ways than one. If you were in charge of the library system down there what sort of specific steps would you implement to prepare these communities and libraries for the future?

Ed: I know the director of libraries in that parish, Janet Cantwell and Janet has been working very hard to bring the libraries back. She’s received donations from a variety of organizations including the Gates Foundation to help reconstruct the libraries. I subscribe to the local newspaper – The Plaquemines Gazette – which is a weekly newspaper and I’ve been reading it religiously to keep track of what’s been happening with the libraries. In fact, an issue that appeared in the past month [July 24, 2007] talked about how they have just opened one of the libraries that was completely devastated in Port Sulphur. And the library that I used to frequent as a kid in a town called Buras, where Katrina made landfall actually, that library they’re hoping to have back – physically back – for its audience its public in Buras and south Plaquemines Parish area, sometime next year.

One of things that I would do besides getting these physical structures back – because they’re very important to the communities to have these physical places there – is also to think about how you could take different kinds of information about the parish and make it available electronically, make it available over the Internet. Because a number of people from Plaquemines Parish from south Louisiana were displaced by Katrina and haven’t returned. Yet are very curious about what’s going on in Plaquemines Parish. So look and making information available online but then looking how that information can actually be customized for these different audiences that are scattered around the country. People who where once fisherman, who once worked in the oil rigs, who once where pilots on the river, who once tended the orange groves. All those people have different kinds of needs how can you take information from the parish and make it available? It could be pictures, it could be text, it could be audio files. There’s this annual festival called Orange Festival...well how do you make the Orange Festival come alive online? Let’s think about how we can do that so anyone anywhere can participate in this festival that they do in the parish. So those are the sorts of things I would do.

One of the things I hope to do here at the university is next semester teach a class on disaster preparedness and actually during spring break take a group of students to New Orleans, to Plaquemines Parish to see what we can do to help, I think it would be a great experience.

As an educator I can help prepare this generation of experimentalists who are going to be working in libraries who are going to take new technologies in ways I can’t even imagine and providing new resources that will be available to everyone.

Joy: Should librarians be afraid of Google or how can librarians work with Google and Google’s Book Project to address some of these quality control issues?

Ed: Both Siva [Vaidhyanathan] [1] and Paul [Duguid] brought up some interesting problems with the Google digitization project that’s largely an issue of trying to automate or semi–automate a process of doing mass digitization. And there are many cases where it’s completely inappropriate to do that, and I think Paul Duguid’s article brought that up about this wonderful book that is physically difficult to reproduce. I can certainly sympathize with that when I think about rare books I have at the library at the Chicago Botanical Garden how hard they would be to reproduce with the current state of digital technologies.

This is where I think librarians can come to the aid of trying to help Google understand some of the difficulties in doing these books. I mean think about a pop–up book, a simple children’s pop–up book, how hard it would be to digitize it, you would lose the whole effect of the pop–up book unless you really thought about how you would show the dimensionality of that book. And something as simple as that a children’s librarian would appreciate. I think the Google Project fails to recognize that books are much more complicated objects. That they aren’t simply pages to be turned and shot and photographed. That there’s more about the structure of a book that needs to be recognized. Not every will have this problem, but there are a certain number of books that need to be recognized as having problems in digitizing.

So how do we do that? Bring in librarians to help do that work.

Joy: Do librarians start the conversation? Should we go and say these things to Google?

Ed: I think what Paul and Siva have done is certainly throw up a red flare and say there are some issues with this. There’s been a lot of response. I know to Paul’s article there was a lot of buzz about his remarks, people taking both sides of this issue. Taking Paul’s side, there’s something wrong with the Google project. Other people taking Google’s side, well most of the stuff is okay. That’s fine. Most is not good enough. If you’re going to try and digitize most of the world’s information, you need to do a really good job of it and with everything, no matter what the work might be, including pop–up books.

I think we need to see librarians be much more aggressive in approaching Google and saying, “We want to help, here’s what we can do.” Now there are librarians that are helping with the Internet archive and their project. But again, Paul didn’t look at what the Internet Archive is doing, whether they’re doing a better or worse job. So we need to look at what they’re doing as well. We need to look at all these digitization projects. There are some efforts starting up in Europe, we need to look at how they’re doing this. How are they being sensitive to the structure of the book? Once we figure that out, once we analyze that, we can see they are or they aren’t, then we need to work out some sort of program to help them do this. To deal with books with idiosyncrasies that’s what we’re really talking about and how can we help them digitize books so those idiosyncrasies are preserved in the digital arena.

Books about subsidies and tax policies are rarely riveting reads, and LeRoy, an engaging polemicist, does his utmost to employ creative titles and subheadings, evocative lists, and informative statistics to make the soporific or complex more manageable.

AJ: Next up is a book review with Alan Bloom.

Alan: I’m Alan Bloom, Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University, and I’m reviewing Greg LaRoy’ The Great American Job Scam: corporate tax dodging and the myth of job creation.

Greg LaRoy is angry and he wants you to read his book, The Great American Job Scam so you will be angry too. He’s tired of corporations that exploit governmental subsidizes and tax policies in order to profit at the public’s expense.

Why, he asks, should tax payers subsidize corporations to the tune of $50 billion dollars a year and routinely give specific corporations packages that include credits for over $100,000 per job? LeRoy is a muckracker who should be applauded for challenging these stratagens. Indeed, that is where his book is at it’s best. LeRoy, however, is less persuasive when he offers his agenda to end these dubious economic practices.

Books about subsidies and tax policies are rarely riveting reads, and LeRoy, an engaging polemicist, does his utmost to employ creative titles and subheadings, evocative lists, and informative statistics to make the soporific or complex more manageable. In the process he takes on Mayor Giuliani, Walmart and other titans like Raytheon. If after reading LeRoy’s book you believe that his suggestions for reform will substansively change polices in our country, then I applaud you for your optimism.

Ultimately, The Great American Job Scam is an informative and eye–opening book. And while Leroy is overly optimistic about reform, one of the benefits of the book is that you do not have to read it cover to cover to learn from it. You can merely dip into it now and again.

You can read my full review in the August 2007 issue of First Monday. For First Monday Podcast I’m Alan Bloom.


1. Refers to the First Monday Podcast September 2007 episode with Siva Vaidhyanathan discussing quality control issues related to the Google Book Project.