Monthly Archives: January 2008

Records as Spoils of War

This is just depressing.

The Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank associated with Stanford University

…signed a deal on Monday with the Iraq Memory Foundation—a private, nonprofit group that has had custody of the documents since just after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003—for the transfer of about seven million pages of records and other artifacts from Saddam Hussein’s tenure as Iraqi president. The deal came despite recent impassioned calls from Iraq’s national archivist for the collections’ immediate repatriation back to Baghdad.

These records were taken from Baghdad just after the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003, and their presence in the U.S. has been debated ever since. The American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table initiated a resolution condemning the seizure of these documents at the recent ALA Midwinter meeting. That resolution was approved by ALA, and while it’s not yet online, should be available soon (I am told) at the Social Responsibilities Round Table site:

This is a very similar issue to the repatriation of Rwandan genocide records that I wrote about in an earlier post. The same arguments are in play: as an Iraqi expat and professor at Brandeis puts it in the Chronicle of Higher Ed article (linked above), “Baghdad is just not ready for it.” My opinion – and that of the entire American Library Association – remains the same: records belong with the people they belong to.

But how convenient that the Hoover Institution – specializing in the records of other countries undergoing “political transformation,” (their words) – should have these documents. I’m sure their first concern is for the Iraqi people. The whole thing just reverberates with the phony justifications and the clandestine interests of the U.S. in the war itself.

In fact, if you read alllll the way down in the Chronicle story linked above, there’s a hint of a bigger issue:

By all accounts, the largest collection of Baath-era documents resides not with Mr. Eskander or Mr. Makiya, but with the U.S. Department of Defense.


Thanks to Lisa Hooper for alterting the SAA student listserv to this issue.


Leave a comment

Filed under archives

Enough already with the “boys left behind” shtick

Any of you in North America who work in public libraries, college libraries, schools, or who are raising kids have probably heard the refrain. I see it in the news all the time. I see it in our provincial library association’s children’s division newsletter. I see it in the flyers that are sent home from my kid’s school.

It goes something like this:

Oh noez! Teh boyz! They haz teh st00pidz! What ken we doez? Teh sky is fallin!!!1!

Well, more or less, anyway. Sound familiar? How about it I phrase it like this?:

“The Boy Crisis. At every level of education, they’re falling behind. What to do?”
—Newsweek cover headline, Jan. 30, 2006

I remember grinding my teeth through our whole cultural “Reviving Opheliaphase, wherein all our preteen girls were supposedly turned into vapid selfless dumbed-down peer-approval-seeking bimbos with disordered eating. Now, a decade or so later, the problem is allegedly the opposite. Those same girls who were trying to make themselves disappear a decade ago are now crushing their male counterparts in standardized tests, crowding them out of post-secondary education.

Wow, must be that darned feminism just went too far, eh? (<– sarcasm)

Here’s the thing: There is no “boy crisis.”

Boys in North American are doing more, better, academically than ever before. So what’s the problem? Well, the problem appears to be that girls are also doing more, better, academically then ever before. And sometimes (*gasp*) they are improving faster than boys!

Oh noez! Teh grrlz! They haz teh schooling! Do smthg, quick!!!1!

An awesome, level-headed look at the alleged “Boy Crisis” through US Statistics comes from Sara Mead at Education Sector. Her report, “Evidence Suggests Otherwise: The Truth About Boys and Girls” is a chart-illustrated walk through 35 years of educational stats, showing the gender breakdown of tests, post-secondary attendance, and the rhetoric of the crisis. Her conclusions? Mead writes “with a few exceptions, American boys are scoring higher and achieving more than they ever have before. But girls have just improved their performance on some measures even faster.” This “boy crisis” doesn’t exist. Boys long have and still do score a little better in math; girls long have and still do score a little better in reading. The gaps, overall, appear to be narrowing in most areas.

While the difference in average scores for boys and girls is not much different, the range within boys and within girls is highly stratified, however, by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic class. The real crises, if one wishes to use such language, are

  1. the lack of academic achievement among secondary students of all genders, and
  2. the fact that our socioeconomically underprivileged children always have and still do perform far below average in schools.

But all that doesn’t make “sky is falling” headlines. Socioeconomic disparity is the way a capitalist patriarchy is supposed to work. Narrowing the academic gaps between the genders is not.

What about the fears over gender-imbalanced post-secondary education? Well, the easy response would be to point out that the sky stayed up there for centuries of gender imbalanced universities when the imbalance was in the favour of boys. But for a more statistically-based answer, let us point out that the issue not is not that boys are going to college/university less than before – in fact they are going more than ever before. It’s just that girls are going, well, more more. Including all the non-traditional (older) female students who are going back now to make up for their younger years when fewer women attended post-secondary.

Now, between my two jobs and all else going on I haven’t (yet) taken the time to get complete data to do a thorough Canadian equivalent of Mead’s report, but from glancing over the publicly available data files reporting on our provincial exams and Statistics Canada’s reporting on Educational Indicators, the story seems to be much the same in Canada as in the US – with perhaps a faster gain in women’s representation in post-graduate education.

It’s worth noting here, as we discuss post-graduate education, that men still make more money than women at the end of their educational careers anyway (due to lack of pay equity, due to unbalanced division of unpaid work, due to women being more frequently employed as marginal/non-regular employees, due to the careers women end up in as compared with men…) so it doesn’t really look like these gains in women’s education really mean much in the capitalist economy anyway, sadly.

Why am I so worked up over this fictitious “boy crisis”? The answer is twofold. The obvious answer is because I’m a gender studies teacher, and I make a career our of analysing gender, both the biology and social construction aspects of it. The perhaps less-obvious answer is because I have a school-age (and not always gender role conforming) son. And I think this rhetoric is bad bad bad not just for his female friends, but for him.

As Sara Mead writes,

“Unfortunately, the current boy crisis hype and the debate around it are based more on hopes and fears than on evidence. This debate benefits neither boys nor girls, while distracting attention from more serious educational problems—such as large racial and economic achievement gaps—and practical ways to help both boys and girls succeed in school…

…The problem is most likely not that high schools need to be fixed to meet the needs of boys, but rather that they need to be fixed to meet the needs of all students, male and female.”

Our schools are broken, dysfunctional. This is hardly a new or radical statement. The very tests that generate the data upon which Mead’s article – and most of this whole boy crisis hype – is based are part of the broken-ness, natch. But the “fixes” that we are beginning to see come out of this alleged boy crisis are scary things, and we need to call them for what they are. For some reason, the response to kids seeming disengaged from school, or from reading, appears to be to paint our activities with a broader brush of stereotypes and generalisations, rather than championing and replicating the highly successful, innovative, small programs that work on a level of meeting individual and small-group needs and interests.

We know that there is far wider variation – in test scores, in interests, even in testosterone levels – among boys and among girls than there is between a group of boys and girls. We know that individual learning styles are far more significant than group affiliations. Why, then, is there this sudden push toward sex-segregated education and programming? (See Ann Friedman at AlterNet on the Bush administration’s freaky efforts to re-segregate education here.)

Sure, there are times and places when sex segregated elective programs are a very positive thing. Having worked in sexual assault and domestic violence I have seen the way women-only spaces have been very empowering for some women. Father-baby storytime groups have proven very successful in encouraging male caregivers to build caring skills – skills they were often denied growing up, due to gender roles (which can now be reinforced in boy-only schools!).

But providing sex-segregated programs with no integrated option is problematic on so many levels. There’s the very valid point that separate is never entirely equal. There’s the fact that very idea of having to chose one or the other – identify as male OR female – can be difficult and traumatic for some of us. There’s the alienation of individuals on the margins of what is considered “normal” for a particular group.

And there’s the actual way these “boy specific” programs are being conceived, which appear to be heading in a few directions:

1) Good opportunity to teach/reinforce a whole lot of sexist gender role crapola to the kids,

2) Dumb everything down and lower expectations because boys are boys and they can’t be expected to apply themselves, and, more frequently

3) Boys need more stimulation/kinetic learning/excitement so they get the really fun and challenging programs while girls have to stay in boring traditional programs

As Zuzu at Feministe wrote, “This sounds suspiciously like that episode of the Simpsons when they split up the boys and girls and Lisa had to pose as a boy to get decent math classes

I’m deliberately not linking to library literature or programs in this post. I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, do any “calling out” or point fingers. This is an issue on which I have seen many very intelligent and caring people led quite astray. I think a lot of librarians have, in an attempt for more of a “meet them where they’re at” approach, mistakenly adopted the boys vs. girls mentality. I am tired of all the well-meaning librarian handwringing about the boys who can’t/don’t/won’t read. I always want to yell, “Who cares? They’re going to make twice your salary anyway!”

Of course I want every child to share my love of reading. (Or anime. Or guitar hero. Or punk music. Or…) Should my own son get “turned off” to reading someday, I would want a librarian or teacher to reach out to him with reading materials that will hook him back in, definitely. Looking at him now, though, I’m guessing that a car repair manual is probably not going to be that hook for him, despite his ownership of a penis. I hope that this cultural phase of ours will have passed by then so that well-intentioned teacher or librarian can look past his gender presentation to his individual characteristics and offer him something truly appropriate and effective for him.


Deciding the cause of the alleged problem of boys not reading is that teachers/librarians are mostly female, or that boys brains/hormones/whatever don’t integrate as well as girls’ do


that the solution to this nonexistent problem is to either enforce gender roles yet more emphatically, or to dream up uber-fun programs or accessible literature and limit it to boys is severely misguided.



Filed under gender

Library School and Information Ethics

An interest group within the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) has released a statement advocating for inclusion of courses on information ethics in all North American LIS curricula:

ALISE draws on ethics from the “universal core values” attributed to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This means advocating for ethics such as equality of opportunity, freedom of thought, opinion, and expression, and explicit rights to privacy and education.

I think teaching information ethics is information programs is fabulously important and I wholeheartedly support the ALISE statement. Ethical guidelines are critical in a profession devoted to information access and information freedom. For instance, U.S. libraries’ protection of patron privacy in the wake of the USA Patriot Act stemmed directly from professional codes of ethics and was an admirable example of privacy protection.

But I also see such broad definitions of information ethics as just a beginning. Broad codes can be very easily and uncritically summarized by ambivalent faculty or students as “be nice to others” guidelines. As a student in my required LIS ethics course asked: “Why do we need this class? Shouldn’t we just be nice to everyone?” And while the answer to her question is yes, of course, don’t our professional ethical obligations reach beyond being nice or treating everyone equally?

Broad ethical codes don’t overtly address entrenched, structural oppressions that librarians and archivists face, and participate in, every day. The IFLA and ALISE codes of ethics do little to question archival appraisal policies which have marginalized or destroyed the records of women, queer people, and communities of color. A broad code of ethics does little to guide progressive collection development policies or to help librarians decide whether controversial books should be removed from the children’s section. A broad code of ethics provides guidelines most librarians can agree upon, but in the end, does little to navigate some of the biggest challenges in our field today. LIS educators should look beyond broad codes of ethics to question the ways in which structural inequalities challenge our ethics. Emphasizing the importance of ethics while teaching that “universal” codes and guidelines are only a start can hopefully encourage critical ethical thinking in LIS education.



Filed under LIS education

CHN Part III – Petition Deadline

The Friends of CHN have put out the word that they are planning to ask the PM and Minister of Health to “have a heart” by delivering their petition to save the Canadian Health Network on Valentine’s Day, Feb 14.

The Conservative government has pulled the funding from the CHN as of March 31, 2008. For info on why the CHN is a valuable and unmatched resource, see previous posts here at SJL CHN Part I – Pulling the Plug on a Success Story and CHN Part II – Replacement Resources?

Excerpt from the petition:

We the undersigned support the Canadian Health Network. We demand that the funding cut required of the Public Health Agency of Canada be rescinded, that full, stable funding for the Canadian Health Network be restored immediately, and that this valuable Canadian health information resource continue to be developed to become the best of its kind in the world.

Their goal is 5,000 signatures and as of today they have 2,219 – lets to go.

If you haven’t signed yet, and wish to do so, the petition can be found here.



Filed under Health

Another one bites the dust: Publish & Perish

A press release from January 7 announced that Raincoast Publishing will soon bite the dust. Apparently this branch of Raincoast Books has been brought down by a stronger Canadian dollar (and the soon-in-sight end of the Harry Potter bonanza), they have decided to kill their publishing program in order for their wholesale/distributing business to stay profitable.

This is very sad news for the struggling Canadian publishing industry and, naturally, for many writers. It is also sad for Canadians and anybody interested not only in Canadian literature but also those who are concerned about the growing globalization of the publishing industry which gives less and less room for none-commercial hits and for regional interests. Like in most businesses, the multinational giants are either swallowing the smaller fish or pushing them out of the publishing ocean to die.

I wonder how Raincoast Publishing would have evolved if they hadn’t grabbed the Harry Potter deal. This blockbuster series allowed them to unprecedented growth, and as it often happens, some expansion decisions might have not been the best, but just late last May, Raincoast was featured in the Arts | Books section of CBC as a glowing example of one of the lucky surviving Canadian publishers.

Maybe we need to keep in mind that, like local organic produce, locally published books by local writers are worth paying more for and that there is a price to pay for not spending our money there. This is might be key at this point for Canadian publishers to survive. Anybody has better ideas?


Raincoast gets back to basics. (2008, January 8). Message posted to

Raincoast Books to ditch publishing arm. (2008, January 8). Arts. Retrieved January 23, 2008, from

Buium, Gr. (2007, May 28). Life after Harry: What the final Harry Potter novel means for Vancouver’s Raincoast Books. Arts. Retrieved January 23, 2008, from

1 Comment

Filed under globalization, publishing

Interface changes are stressful, kind of like dating

Like many of you out there, I am currently being forced to overcome my resistance to change and explore the new OvidSP interface (nice tutorial here). Argh! So, like some fellow health librarian bloggers I am putting my opinions out there. I’ll warn you now that some grouchiness ensues below…

First of all, Interface changes make me break out in a cold sweat, cause my heart to pound, and all those things. I feel worried I’m going to lose all this work I’ve done and that my previously-acquired skills will be rendered useless. I have anticipatory dread over the inevitable fumbling as I learn the new rules and shortcuts, combined with a glimmer of excitement that old dysfunctions might be resolved or eliminated. I notice my loyalty to the old interface, no matter how much I have scorned it in the past, because of its familiarity. Yet I know I have to take the chance, first of all because the new one might actually be better, and secondly because often there really is no going back. It’s a bit like falling in love, except with no sex or chocolate.

My first impressions are that Ovid is trying to become more user-friendly. This is where my professional searcher self and my public service self conflict. I can still remember the first time I was faced with an Ovid interface. I was searching for something in BIOSIS related to sex-changing fish, if I recall correctly. I was a library student and the interface was, at first, rather daunting, with the sometimes labyrinthine subject mapping and gazillions of fields from which I could choose. However, now that I am acclimated, I rather like the Byzantine structure of many Ovid databases. I would never default to doing a systematic review search in, say, the Ebsco interface to Medline!

I have this awesome setup at work with two monitors side-by-side. It seemed extravagant at first, but now I shudder to imagine life with out it –especially when searching while documenting a search, or adapting an academic paper into a one-page KT factsheet. Today I took a deep breath and jumped into a side-by-side comparison of the old and new Ovid interfaces to Medline ((R) 1950 to Present with Daily Update). So, in case you care, or care to argue with me about it, below are my initial thoughts.

What I like:

  • Spellcheck! Hurrah for this! It is far too easy to typo and not notice, particularly with esoteric drug names, binomial nomenclature, and the like.
  • *Much* longer timeout periods. Another hurrah here! The #1 peeve I have with old Ovid is that I answer the phone or go to the washroom and when I come back to my search, I get booted out because of the timeout period. Moving from 15 minutes to 75 is a huge improvement – thank you!
  • Combining searches without loading a new screen to do so. (Of course, I usually just type in ((1 and 2) not (3 or 4)) rather than click checkboxes and buttons , but for a simple and/or combo it is better now. And for less-professional users with slow connection time this is a good thing.
  • My personal account transferred over just fine. *whew*
  • Not having to scroll to the bottom to sort records or use the results manager
  • Ability to sort results by a longer list of attributes

What makes me want to tear my hair out:

  • Where did my Subject Mapping go? Why did you bury this under a tab I have to click on, check a box for Mapping, and then click on again? I love my subject mapping! And why, on the “search tools” tab, are the features you used to (and still can) access through the mapping display all set out there independently? I admit there’s a slight chance that once I get used to it I will like being able to check a scope note of a subject heading without first mapping to the subject heading, but right now I’m feeling ornery about the loss of subject mapping as the default. (The default “tab” can, of course, be changed at the administrative level…depending on the admin’s assessment of user needs)
  • Smaller print. Hello inaccessibility! Like we really need to squint more at our screens? And don’t tell me I can just use my mouse roller to enlarge – the spacing gets wonky and text overflows its boxes when I bring it up to the size of the old interface type. (Except when you output the results list in Ovid display, when it inexplicably gets really big and ugly. What is this about?)
  • The OvidSP tip box. Tell me this is temporary, please? Tips are great, but either allow me to disable this feature for the expert searcher, or at least make it smaller and less obtrusive. This is the only place on my page with font the size of old Ovid, and it’s not what I want to focus on.
  • The vagueness of some of the search tips anyway – just telling me that * is now a wildcard is not useful. If I know enough to understand what a wildcard operator is, I probably want to know if/how it is different from $ in Ovid.
  • Still no option to get month-specific when limiting results by publication date. This is where Ebsco really has the leg up, Ovid-folks.
  • What is the deal with the “Score” out of five stars? Am I missing something? Are we not working with an exact match system here? All of my results have five stars, defeating the purpose, one would think. Perhaps this is relevant in some other databases that share the interface?
  • A disadvantage to novice users is definitely, IMO, the elimination of the “Advanced search” point of entry. Oh yes, I see it is still there under “Ovid Syntax,” but really what non-librarian wants to click a tab called “syntax”? The switch from author or title searching being right out there on the advanced search page, to requiring that users go to either the Ovid Syntax or the “Find Citation” tab and enter in the author name or title in field boxes there. I am not convinced that “Find citation” sounds the same as “search by author” to people. Also, why the heck does it ask for Author surname if it really wants Surname, Firstname?
  • This is a temporary beef, for the transition period, but why does the old Ovid interface entice you to “Try OvidSP?” in your “classic” interface session, only to chuck your current search without warning if you do decide to click and try the new interface? This is super annoying, and gets us off on the wrong foot from the start. ISI Web of Knowledge managed to launch their new interface in a new window so you don’t chuck your old search – why isn’t Ovid doing so as well?
  • Finally, the amount of time this is going to suck in end-user retraining. My faculty who actually use Medline are interested in learning advanced Google searching, frankly, not retraining on a system that they already knew.

The jury is still out on:

  • Ability to annotate records. When would I use this? How is this useful to me? I will have to think about/play with this. Anyone out there find this useful?
  • “Narrow search” suggestions. How very Ebsco of you, Ovid. I will admit that this is somewhat nice for novice searchers, but for me it just takes up space on the page, adding to the small/squinched font issue. Additionally, I find that novice searchers frequently get lost in layers of narrowing by suggested subject, rather than being helped by it, so I’m unconvinced at this point. But there’s the possibility you could change my mind.

I like that Ovid is trying to be more user friendly – I really do. However, that’s why we have Ebsco – and, frankly, PubMed – is it not? Of course, not all of us *do* have EBSCO as well as Ovid – many libraries have to choose, which is why everyone has to try be everything to every user. I get that. Still, Ovid is pretty good at what they do, and it would be entirely possible to incorporate some of the “Hurrah!” improvements without scrapping the old layout/focus. The battle between generalist-user accessibility and expert-user utility rages on, I guess. I just have my doubts that Ovid will ever be the Medline etc. interface of the masses – and from that perspective I wish they’d hone their expert searching tools rather than make dubious stabs at being user-friendly and able to search with a natural language query.


1 Comment

Filed under Health, tips and tools

Tagging in Archives

The U.S. Library of Congress’ new Flickr photo tagging effort The Commons is getting lots of attention from info studies folks and the wider blogosphere. The upload of historical photos owned by LC onto such a popular “Web 2.0” site has generated talk about possibilities for incorporating user tags into library and archive collections. The Commons tagline underscores this possibility, reading: “Your opportunity to contribute to describing the world’s public photo collections.”

The Commons is but one example of growing attention to the possibilities for user-generated content in museum, library and archival settings. Projects such as Steve.Museum have similar goals. But as RLG’s Hanging Together blog points out, the LC effort seems to be as much about publicity for LC’s digital collections as it is about incorporating descriptions provided by taggers into LC records. LC, much like Steve.Museum, seems to be testing the water on tags without full commitment to including user descriptions in collection metadata.

The effort also raises questions about the nature of “participation” in collection management and description. Tagging – the practice of users labeling online content with descriptors – seems to many info professionals a promising route toward increasing participation. As someone particularly interested in increasing participation and representation in archives, I’ve often wondered what tagging could do for description of archival resources.

But the more I learn about tagging, the more I question the assumption that tagging = description. Taggers have a wide range of motivations for tagging, and they span far beyond organizational and descriptive practices. Taggers use tags for personal retrieval and time management (tagging a webpage “to read” in tagging giant, and for self-expression and performance (tagging “favorites” or “I hate this” on, or as my colleague Alla Zollers cites, “Maybe that is why i sometimes still don’t feel like a grown woman-music” on music site*

Rather than user-generated description, tagging is something more like user-referential content: tags express a relationship between a person and a digital object. This means that tagging is most meaningful when a relationship between a user and an object exists. If users don’t feel a connection to the content in the LC Flickr collection, they won’t tag. I wonder if LC has considered their intended tagging public and their relationship to a photo collection in choosing collections for display? And if so, how did they define this public?

A different but equally interesting criticism of tagging is that the practice creates “flat” descriptions: tags like “grain elevator,” “baseball,” or “painting,” without dialog about what those descriptions mean. It is also a way of expressing one’s own view without recourse for discussion or the need to consider the view of others. (Tagging political items could really suffer from this lack of dialog). Could we instead envision a system that, instead of asking for one-word descriptions, asked questions like “what does this mean?” or “What is important here?”

For archives, projects like LC’s Flickr collection are a reminder of the question of how to meaningfully increase user participation in collection description. Tagging is appealing for its growing popularity and emerging accessibility. (Still unclear are questions about the demographics of the tagging population – who tags – and whether tagging is, at the moment, culturally widespread.) Tagging can be a step towards user involvement in archival description. But I do not think that tagging, in itself, can increase meaningful participation in archives.

What about all of you? Do you tag? Do you find it useful, accessible, interesting? Do any of the information organizations you work with use Web 2.0 technologies to experiment with collections?


A cool side note about The Commons: the pictures are all widely usable under the statement “no known copyright restrictions.” Fodder for a different post….

* Zollers, Alla. “Emerging Motivations for Tagging: Expression, Performance, and Activism.” Proceedings of WWW 2007. 2007.



1 Comment

Filed under archives