Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015 Year in Review

As the end of 2015 nears, it's time to reflect on the year. To that end, please peruse the top posts from 2015. There's also a lot of other great content in the 176 total posts this year. 

Happy Holidays! See you in 2016!

Monday, December 21, 2015

LOC Acquires Portfolio of US Public Libraries

The Library of Congress recently acquired 681 photos of public libraries in what equates to an interesting anthropological portrait of the space that libraries hold in American life.

There are over 16,000 public libraries in the United States, and although photographer Robert Dawson only visited a fraction — 526 over two decades — his series presents a diverse portrait of this community space. The Library of Congress announced the acquisition of 681 of Dawson’s library photographs, adding to their ongoing archive of American library documentation.

From 1994 to 2015, he journeyed from coast-to-coast, crossing 48 states, turning his lens on this ubiquitous — and rapidly changing — local resource. Libraries still center around books, yet are increasingly incorporating new technology to engage the current needs and interests of their communities. His photographs capture how libraries are architecturally amorphous, from one nestled in an Abilene, Texas, strip mall alongside a Family Dollar franchise, to another in a trailer isolated in Death Valley National Park. Their only connection is that both serve as a free resource for reading and information.

Super Bingo, Family Dollar, and Mockingbird branch library, Abilene, Texas (2011)

Library, Death Valley National Park, California (photo by Robert Dawson)

“His extensive visual survey can help us understand the varied and changing roles of public libraries today, in all their different sizes and locations, from storefront rooms to grand civic spaces; from crowded book mobiles to cutting edge designs,” Helena Zinkham, Library of Congress director for collections and services. 

This portfolio will offer unfettered access to the changing landscape of American libraries for years to come.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Critical Librarianship or #Critlib

Because academic librarians provide services to a wide variety of faculty, many faculty members forget that librarianship is its own profession. Many times librarians get lumped together with other types of support staff (even if tenure track) without getting the deference and support that we need as a niche academic field.

But librarians study important factors that affect the search and retrieval of information. Part of the library profession is to look at librarianship with a critical eye, thus was born critical librarianship. So what is critical librarianship, you ask?

It places librarianship within a critical theorist framework that is epistemological, self-reflective, and activist in nature. According to Elaine Harger, librarians that practice critical librarianship strive to communicate the ways in which libraries and librarians consciously and unconsciously support systems of oppression. Critical librarianship seeks to be transformative, empowering, and a direct challenge to power and privilege.

Critical librarianship in academic libraries can support critical thinking, information literacy, and lifelong learning skills in students. According to Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, librarians and scholars that are incorporating a critical information literacy praxis into their teaching and learning practices are reflecting on their pedagogy beyond standards, competencies, and outcomes.This process involves self-reflection on pedagogical theory, teaching practices, and assessment of the student and teacher. It is the process and not the product that we have to be more mindful of. Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins argue that librarians, when applying a critical perspective in their work, consider the historical, cultural, social, economic, and political forces that interact with information in order to critique, disrupt, and interrogate these forces.Information is not neutral, thus the way that information is presented by librarians adds meaning and context for students. There is power and privilege in the ways in which information is presented and processed by instructors and students. The dialectical relationship between students who can access the information and those without access is separated by pay walls, skewed algorithms, and hegemonic authority controlled vocabulary. If we dig a little deeper into the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, we would find that authority, information, information creation, research, and scholarship are constructed and contextual.

Critical librarianship is involved when discussing bias in machine learning, for example.

Critlib has sprung out of this movement. Critlib is an informal gathering—discussion happens wherever interested library workers come together! The primary discussions have taken place on Twitter (using the hashtag #critlib; find our archived discussions here) and at conferences.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Art of Academic Book Reviews

Like most other types of writing, there is an art to writing academic book reviews.

According to InsideHigherEd
In fact, like other genres of academic writing, such as journal articles and research proposals, academic book reviews tend to have a standard, even formulaic, structure. Although of course this may vary slightly by discipline and/or publication venue, my advice is, if in doubt, to use the following framework, with one paragraph for each of the following seven sections:
  • Introduction. All good pieces of academic writing should have an introduction, and book reviews are no exception. Open with a general description of the topic and/or problem addressed by the work in question. Think, if possible, of a hook to draw your readers in.
  • Summary of argument. Your review should, as concisely as possible, summarize the book’s argument. Even edited collections and textbooks will have particular features intended to make them distinctive in the proverbial marketplace of ideas. What, ultimately, is this book’s raison d’être? If there is an identifiable thesis statement, you may consider quoting it directly.
  • About the author(s). Some basic biographical information about the author(s) or editor(s) of the book you are reviewing is necessary. Who are they? What are they known for? What particular sorts of qualifications and expertise do they bring to the subject? How might the work you are reviewing fit into a wider research or career trajectory?
  • Summary of contents. A reasonably thorough indication of the research methods used (if applicable) and of the range of substantive material covered in the book should be included.
  • Strength. Identify one particular area in which you think the book does well. This should, ideally, be its single greatest strength as an academic work.
  • Weakness. Identify one particular area in which you think the book could be improved. While this weakness might be related to something you actually believe to be incorrect, it is more likely to be something that the author omitted, or neglected to address in sufficient detail.
  • Conclusion. End your review with a concluding statement summarizing your opinion of the book. You should also explicitly identify a range of audiences whom you think would appreciate reading or otherwise benefit from the book.
I will keep this formula in mind as I embark on an academic book review for the Law Library Journal this spring. In addition, I will use the Journal's Reviewer Guide

As mentioned by InsideHigherEd, book reviews should not be understood as a matter of individual profit and/or loss. They are, rather, for the collective good; they are important voluntary inputs into the wider system of academic book publishing upon which the contemporary academic profession is symbiotically dependent.

And I look forward to adding to the law library profession in this way. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

United Smarts of America: The Continuing Need For Libraries

NPR posed the question, "do we really need libraries?" I bet you can guess the answer. 

For more than 100 years public libraries in this country have provided all members of the public with free access ... coveted access, to knowledge, information, and opportunity. Public libraries evened the playing field for allAll in all, [Andrew] Carnegie — in Johnny Appleseed fashion — planted 1,679 library buildings in communities throughout the nation between 1886 and 1919, according to the National Park Service. From Caribou, Maine, to Clarksdale, Miss; from Honolulu to Miles City, Mont. Many of the structures are grandiloquent cathedrals — edification edifices, little Louvres for the intellect — designed to send the message: Learning is everlasting.

They also gave us the sense that we lived in the United Smarts of America.

But with a world of information at our fingertips — virtually anytime, anywhere — do we still need physical book-and-mortar libraries? 

As a 1983 British conference on libraries observed, "We are a long way off producing true cost benefit data where you can assign a credible cash figure to the value of using any type of library." The proceedings of the 1983 conference, by the way, were titled: "Do We Really Need Libraries?" The answer seems self-evident. We are asking the same question more than 30 years later and many libraries are teeming with people. As the British study pointed out, there is a lot of opportunity when reckoning with naysayers "for developing costs per benefits but we do need to spend more time establishing exactly what these benefits are." 

What are the benefits of libraries in this day and age?

Like a good librarian, Tony Marx of the New York Public Library has some answers. Today's libraries still lend books, he says. But they also provide other services to communities, such as free access to computers and Wi-Fi, story times to children, language classes to immigrants and technology training to everyone.

"Public libraries are arguably more important today than ever before," Marx says. "Their mission is still the same — to provide free access to information to all people. The way people access information has changed, but they still need the information to succeed, and libraries are providing that."

Or as Andrew Carnegie said many years ago: "A library outranks any other thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert."

This article is a perfect example of the changing landscape of libraries but that the relevance of libraries still remains. We've been having the relevance discussion for decades. We are constantly "spend[ing] more time establishing what [the] benefits [of libraries] are." It's hard to rely on the basic "access to information" premise in light of shrinking budgets and naysayers, but libraries are necessary as "clinics of the soul." And will continue to be so.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Senior Partner Complaints Re: Associate Brief Writing

Thank you, FindLaw, for succinctly substantiating the things I try to teach my international LL.M. students regarding the pitfalls of brief writing.

Associates have spent years writing, from their undergrad thesis papers, to their torturous legal writing courses, to their summer internship memos. Writing is their strong point -- right?

Not if you ask partners, who can quickly rattle off a litany of problems with their associate writing. Here's a brief rundown of partners' biggest complaints.

1. Typos and Grammatical Errors

Sure, there are some areas of ambiguity. Is it caselaw or case law? Do you Oxford comma or not? But aside from those, every typo or grammatical makes you look bad -- and lazy.

2. Too Many Abbreviations (TMA)

Use standard abbreviations and acronyms when appropriate. ERA, CERCLA, and IRS are all fine. Never abbreviate party names, avoid creating novel abbreviations, and for the sake of all that is good in writing, don't let the things like gov't, ass'n, or W. Va. show up anywhere but your citations.

3. Weak Use of Authorities

Cases from other jurisdictions, statutes that have been amended or repealed, and citations that only sort of support your assertions -- they're not of much use. 

4. Sloppy Organization

Make sure arguments are laid out clearly and coherently. Avoid rambling or jumping between arguments and issues.

5. Wordiness and Passive Voice

Passive voice makes issues that are often already very boring and complicated even more boring and complicated. The same goes for wordiness. Focus on what matters and keep things short and tight.

This is all spot on advice. Beyond the obvious punctuation and grammar, I try to leave my students with an organization scheme that they can rely on in any situation. Is it an element driven analysis? Or a factor analysis? Is it a shifting burdens test? Or are some arguments stronger than others? All of these things will drive the organization scheme of the brief. While learning this material in one class is great, we need to teach research and writing across the curriculum to give the students enough practice to make these things second nature.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Child's Development From Books On Shelves

There's something to the culture of records or books on shelves that piques a curiosity in children that is good for their intellect during their formative years.

A NYTimes article noted:
Perhaps the strongest case for a household full of print books came from a 2014 study published in the sociology journal Social Forces. Researchers measured the impact of the size of home libraries on the reading level of 15-year-old students across 42 nations, controlling for wealth, parents’ education and occupations, gender and the country’s gross national product.

After G.N.P., the quantity of books in one’s home was the most important predictor of reading performance. The greatest effect was seen in libraries of about 100 books, which resulted in approximately 1.5 extra years of grade-level reading performance. (Diminishing returns kick in at about 500 books, which is the equivalent of about 2.2 extra years of education.)

Libraries matter even more than money; in the United States, with the size of libraries being equal, students coming from the top 10 percent of wealthiest families performed at just one extra grade level over students from the poorest 10 percent.

The implications are clear: Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically. It helps, of course, if parents are reading to their children and reading themselves, not simply buying books by the yard as décor.

“It is a big question of whether it’s the books themselves or the parental scholarly culture that matters — we’re guessing it’s somewhere in between,” said Mariah Evans, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. “The books partly reflect intelligence.”

As discussed, there's a question whether it's the culture of the parents or the books themselves that matter, but there's no denying the strong correlation.

It's also important to give children (and researchers) the chance to find information serendipitously. With the keyword searching that often goes into looking for information electronically, it's easier to consider an idea then try to substantiate it through research. But with serendipitous information, it causes the brain to make connections that may have otherwise not been considered had the researcher not accidentally run across the information.

And there's nothing better than a living space full of books and vinyl records.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Origins Of The Bluebook Revealed

The things we spend our time on: Two librarians at Yale Law School have found that Yale Law School created The Bluebook, not The Harvard Law Review.

As noted in the NYTimes article:
Among the low points in an American legal education is the law student’s first encounter with The Bluebook, a 582-page style manual formally known as “A Uniform System of Citation.” It is a comically elaborate thicket of random and counterintuitive rules about how to cite judicial decisions, law review articles and the like. It is both grotesque and indispensable.

True, true, and true. And the creation of this behemoth was originally credited to The Harvard Law Review.

The Harvard Law Review has long claimed credit for creating The Bluebook. But a new article from two librarians at Yale Law School says its rival’s account is “wildly erroneous.” 

The standard account of the origins of The Bluebook is reflected in a 1987 speech by Erwin N. Griswold, who had been president of The Harvard Law Review, dean of Harvard Law School and solicitor general of the United States. The speech is reproduced on the law review’s website.

The Bluebook, he said, was based on a booklet prepared by Harvard students in the 1920s. “Other law reviews heard about it, and made suggestions for its improvement,” he said. “This led to a meeting of the presidents of the Harvard, Columbia and University of Pennsylvania Law Reviews, and The Yale Law Journal.”

Mr. Shapiro and Ms. Krishnaswami trace the origins of The Bluebook to an eight-page booklet prepared in 1920 by Karl N. Llewellyn, who was editor in chief of The Yale Law Journal and would become an enormously influential law professor. A page of the booklet, possibly written with a colleague, set out a few sensible citation conventions, illustrating them with fake examples.

A decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court should be cited this way, it said: “Jones v. Smith (1911) 92 Conn. 34, 3 Atl. 56.” That example appeared again in a little pamphlet The Yale Law Journal distributed the next year called “Abbreviations and Form of Citation.” Both documents had blue covers, perhaps because that is Yale’s school color.

There is a 1922 document in Harvard’s files called “Instructions for Editorial Work” that Mr. Griswold said was the basis for The Bluebook, first published in 1926. But there is vanishingly little overlap between the Harvard document and the first Bluebook. On the other hand, the exact Connecticut Supreme Court citation and similar specific examples, as well as a great deal of other material, had somehow migrated from Yale into The Bluebook.

And there you have it.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Libraries As Complicated Places

Libraries are lovely, complicated places. We abandon and demolish libraries. But we also place them in odd places to make books and literacy more accessible.

The Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library system was opened in 1940 and abandoned in the 1990s. Its tale follows the boom and bust of Detroit closely. Like any institution dependent on the public for funding, if the public is hurting, so too will the library.

And then there's the more deliberate demolition of libraries to make way for parking garages. The sad tale of the  Public Library of Cincinnati - once a magnificent structure:

Demolished for this:

The lyrics, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot..." come to mind here. While these tales are not unique, there are also parts of the library world that make a librarian's heart swell. The unconventional libraries that pop up to help create an informed citizenry. This is my favorite example:

One of the things that I love about libraries is that they are as complicated as society itself. Libraries reflect the best and worst of society. The anti-intellectual as well as the search for knowledge. They certainly are complicated, lovely places.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Librarians From 1957 Have In Common With Librarians From 2015...

A lot! But, more specifically, the notion that computers are about to replace us at any moment. Admittedly, I am way behind. I finally watched Desk Set last night. The movie was released in 1957 (*swoon worthy mid-century modern furnishings) and follows the Reference Department at the Federal Broadcasting Network through a scare that it will be replaced by a computer. I identified with the Reference Department in the movie as facing some of the same issues in 2015.

Bunny Watson (played by Katharine Hepburn) is head of Reference when an impending computer purchase is threatening to replace her and the rest of the Reference staff. The Reference Department is very busy with the phone ringing off the hook (when phones actually rested in a hook). The Reference Department's knowledge base is very impressive - using a stereotype of librarians that I can get behind.

It was plain to see that the types of questions the Ref Dept answered in 1957 could easily be answered with a simple Google search in 2015. But the overall idea that computers cannot make the same types of connections as the human brain still rings true - especially when analyzing the law.

We may find ourselves in a time when Ross can retrieve cases and statutes for us, but we won't be at a point anytime soon where we find that Ross can analyze an intricate set of client facts and compare those facts to case precedent and statutory interpretation to argue a result.

To do effective legal research, a lawyer must build on her knowledge of the law to issue spot facts and identify the relevant law. The lawyer must find statutes and cases that offer an analysis of the law to the set of facts. This often requires making tough analogies that force  the lawyer to build on the analysis and fill holes through additional research to advocate successfully for a client. It's not enough to find a case citation or the correct statute on point. It takes special skill to find the law and use it effectively. This is not something that machine learning or artificial intelligence is capable of, yet.

While technology is stronger than ever before, this movie reminded me that librarians have been facing the threat of extinction by computer for a very long time now. Yet we are still here and thriving. And we will still be here and thriving for many years to come.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bias in Machine Reading & Artificial Intelligence

In August, The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article on social bias in web technology (sub. req'd). The article noted that [w]hile automation is often thought to eliminate flaws in human judgment, bias—or the tendency to favor one outcome over another, in potentially unfair ways—can creep into complex computer code. Programmers may embed biases without realizing it, and they can be difficult to spot and root out. The results can alienate customers and expose companies to legal risk. Computer scientists are just starting to study the problem and devise ways to guard against it.

One common error is endemic to a popular software technique called machine learning, said Andrew Selbst, co-author of “Big Data’s Disparate Impact,” a paper to be published next year by the California Law Review. Programs that are designed to “learn” begin with a limited set of training data and then refine what they’ve learned based on data they encounter in the real world, such as on the Internet. Machine-learning software adopts and often amplifies biases in either data set.

In other words, machine learning deals with designing and developing algorithms to evolve behaviors based on empirical data. One key goal of machine learning is to be able to generalize from limited sets of data (paraphrased from. Machine learning is the specific capability to "adapt to new circumstances and to detect and extrapolate patterns".

This differs from artificial intelligence in that AI encompasses other areas apart from machine learning, including knowledge representation, natural language processing/understanding, planning, robotics etc.

When it comes to the social bias embedded in web technology, [t]ake recent research from Carnegie Mellon that found male Web users were far more likely than female users to be shown Google ads for high-paying jobs. The researchers couldn’t say whether this outcome was the fault of advertisers—who may have chosen to target ads for higher-paying jobs to male users—or of Google algorithms, which tend to display similar ads to similar people. If Google’s software notices men gravitating toward ads for high-paying jobs, the company’s algorithm will automatically show that type of ad to men, the researchers said.

From this work, there is an emerging discipline known as algorithmic accountability taking shape. These academics, who hail from computer science, law and sociology, try to pinpoint what causes software to produce these types of flaws, and find ways to mitigate them. Researchers at Princeton University’s Web Transparency and Accountability Project, for example, have created software robots that surf the Web in patterns designed to make them appear to be human users who are rich or poor, male or female, or suffering from mental-health issues. The researchers are trying to determine whether search results, ads, job postings and the like differ depending on these classifications.

One of the biggest challenges, they say, is that it isn’t always clear that the powerful correlations revealed by data-mining may be biased. Xerox Corp., for example, quit looking at job applicants’ commuting time even though software showed that customer-service employees with the shortest commutes were likely to keep their jobs at Xerox longer. Xerox managers ultimately decided that the information could put applicants from minority neighborhoods at a disadvantage in the hiring process.

This is an important consideration as we start to rely more and more on machine learning and artificial intelligence to do our thinking for us. While we should be using machine learning to augment our intelligence rather than to replace our analysis, if machine learning is resulting in biased data for our decision making, it can lead to disastrous results. And if we start to rely on machines to do our thinking for us, there is no system of checks and balances. Kudos to the academics focusing on this area.