The Changing Nature of Awe: Melding the Humanities with Technology

By brookemorrison

It’s undeniable that technological skills are highly prioritized in our current world, and that schools seek to maintain relevancy in their lessons while new hardware and software are being produced at an exceedingly rapid speed—laptops and iPads have been introduced into everyday lessons, across many different subjects; students are participating in online, class-related discussion and blogging; websites like RapGenius are pushing the boundaries of how students perform literary analysis and annotation; “educational” computer games like Civilization are often used as supplementary learning materials. [1]

How does this influx of technology actually affect the humanities? Parents continue to express interest in science, “communications”, and math skills being emphasized in the classroom—arts, however, are often overlooked, or even considered unimportant. [2] This problem aligns ideologically with the mission of museums and specialized arts institutions like Poets House to increase outreach and engagement with their respective art forms. Is the answer to both, in fact, to include more of the technology lauded by the general public in these traditionally analog arts environments? Perhaps.

There are many ways that one can combine art and technology. The popular arts nonprofit and New Museum-affiliate Rhizome has created a series called Seven on Seven, where seven artists are matched with seven technologists and charged with the task of creating something new within the span of one day. [3] This kind of program encourages the combination of two different backgrounds— but even in this instance, art and technology are being viewed as separate. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be such a distinction— after all electronic music has been around for years, and the creation of simple illustration programs like Paint have brought about classes like Advanced Digital Painting, which was recently introduced into the curriculum at RISD.[4]

The advances for technology in the study of poetry are still rather rudimentary, but strides are being made with RapGenius’s offshoots of PoetryGenius and LitGenius. But are these websites more or less effective than physical manifestations of outreach programs? Poets House has developed the Poetry in the Branches program with the intention to raise awareness and engagement with the art form in public libraries, and other environments highly trafficked by children, like zoos. This analog approach to outreach has the Poets House staff physically present in order to train the librarians participating in the program. PitB itself also relies heavily on the implementation of in-person interactions with poems and poetry via guest speakers, workshops, reading series, etc., all with the aim to increase public engagement.[5] The physical presence of poetry is also emphasized—Marsha Howard, the PitB coordinator (interestingly, a former NYPL librarian), is quoted as saying “Poetry is most successful when your patrons hear it, see it, hear about it, bump into it, in as many ways as possible…It will be unavoidable if you do a good job.”[6]

This is true enough; as with any skill or knowledge, constant contact with the subject matter leads to learning, and often there are learning by-products of a particular educational activity  (à la Mr. Miyagi’s wax-on, wax-off lessons in Karate Kid). For example, English majors are often celebrated for their general ability to think critically and for their writing skills— by-products of close-reading and a myriad of writing assignments.[7] However, is this the initial aim of the English major? In most cases, certainly not—a love for literature, reading, or writing is usually at the heart of this choice. It just so happens that repeated engagement with the written word leads to a better understanding of language structure and use. (The same arguments can be made in the case of studying Philosophy, Art History, and others, of course.)

What if, along with the “by-product” of critical thinking skills, students of the humanities also gained skills in technology? And if this were to be the case, then programs like Poetry in the Branches would be immensely helpful in fostering an initial love for poetry, leading (ideally) to an elevated study of poetry, and the subsequent gains in critical thinking and technology skills. Perhaps the introduction of more technology-based humanities engagement would lead to more a well-rounded, tech-savvy (read: obviously employable) breed of humanities scholars. Furthermore, this change in tech-implementation could quell the fears of humanities students in graduating without marketable skills (and the fears of parents whose children arrive home for holidays having declared themselves a Fine Arts major).

In today’s world, higher education has taken the unfortunate turn towards vocational schooling— the aim is to find a career, and to gain applicable skill-sets rather than to stimulate the mind into growing, and creating new synapses and modes of thinking. The humanities seem to have developed a reputation as an academic inside-joke where the punchline is unemployment—but why? It didn’t used to be so. As Amory Blaine laments in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, “I may turn out an intellectual, but I’ll never write anything but mediocre poetry.”[8] True appreciation for art is noble, and to be gifted at it is rare. That potential poets and other artists might be discouraged due to a lack of employment marketability is quite sad, and ultimately detrimental to the future of humanity.

Rather than segregating art, science, and technology, let us continue to integrate them and encourage the crossing of intellectual borders; let’s make our poets write in zeros and ones, and have our scientists write sonnets about their discoveries. After all, as Socrates claims: the unexamined life is not worth living, and as celebrated programmer and activist Aaron Swartz said: “Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. What people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.”[9] The pursuit of information and data can yield wonderfully creative means of expression, and artistic, often beautiful results. For example, the LinkedJazz Project has created a visual diagram of connections between jazz musicians, resulting in a mesmerizing chart:

Screenshot of LinkedJazz Project's Network Visualization Tool

Screenshot of LinkedJazz Project’s Network Visualization Tool

The poet Kenneth Goldsmith also incorporates the Internet frequently into his work. In his project Printing out the Internet (which he dedicated to Schwartz), Goldsmith encouraged the public to print pages of the Internet and send them to a gallery in Mexico City. [11]


Image from Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Printing out the Internet.”

These are just two projects out of countless possibilities. The acknowledgement of technology and the Internet in artistic forms is an imperative if these art forms are going to survive in an increasingly technological world (or, at least, if they are going to continue to receive funding). We need creative people interested in the arts to be allowed to unabashedly pursue their interests, for the good of art, technology, and humanity.



  1. Klopfer, Eric; Osterweil, Scot; Groff, Jennifer; Haas, Jason, “Using the Technology of Today in the Classroom Today: The Instructional Power of Digital Games, Social Networking Simulations, and How Teachers Can Leverage Them.” The Education Arcade. MIT: 2009. Web. Accessed on 13 Dec 2015. <>
  2. Sara Kehaulani Goo, “The skills Americans say kids need to succeed in life,” Pew Research Center, 19 February 2015. Accessed on 14 Dec 2015. <>
  3. Rhizome, “Seven on Seven.” Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015. <>
  4. RISD, “Fall 2015 Illustration Courses.” Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015. <>
  5. Poets House, “Poetry in the Branches.” Web. Accessed 13 Dec 2015. <>
  6. Howard, Marsha, as quoted by Marcella Veneziale in “Poets House National Institute Aims to Boost Poetry in Public Libraries.” Library Journal. 8 April 2010. Web. Accessed 13 Dec 2015. <>
  7. Lewin, Tamar. “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.” New York Times. 30 Oct 2013. Web. Accessed 13 Dec 2015. <>
  8. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. Scribner, 1920. Google Books. Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015.
  9. Schwartz, Aaron, as quoted in Silvia Puglisi’s preface to RESTful Rails Development: Building Open Applications and Services. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2015. Google Books. Web. Accessed 14 Dec 2015.
  10. LinkedJazz Project Visual Network. <>
  11. Kenneth Goldsmith. Printing Out The Internet Tumblr. <>


Redefining Public Librarians as Research-Oriented Social Workers: Y/N?

By brookemorrison

The library landscape changes in accordance with the community it serves—more prosperous communities can afford nicer facilities, while those with less funding might house out-of-date technologies, a smaller staff, and surroundings that aren’t quite as kempt. The latter are characteristics of the types of environments fostering biases in the titular “Street Level Bureaucrats” outlined in Michael Lipsky’s 1969 study for the Institute on Poverty Research. Though the study was conducted over forty years ago, it is applicable in todays’ public libraries, where librarians are comparable to the Street Level Bureaucrats outline within the study. In fact, I would argue that the comparison is spot-on:

A Street-level Bureaucrat is defined as a public employee whose work is characterized by the following three conditions:

1. He is called upon to interact constantly with citizens in the regular course of his job.

2. Although he works within a bureaucratie structure, his independenee on the job is fairly extensive.One component of this independenee is discretion in making decisions; but independence in job performance is not Iimited to discretion. The attitude and general approach of a Street-Ievel Bureaucrat toward his client may affect his client significantly. These considerations are broader than the term discretion suggests. 

3. Tbe potential impact on citizens with whom he deals is fairly extensive.

(Lipsky 2)

(Right?) For the sake of this post let’s agree that there are at least a few—if not an overwhelming number of—similarities between the Street-Level Bureaucrat and the public librarian (specifically). Lipsky studies a few of the problems facing SLB’s, namely those “that arise from lack of organizational and personal resources, physical and psychological threat, and conflicting and ambiguous role expectations,”(MANGUEL web) succinctly identifying what happen to be some of the most pertinent causes of identity crisis in contemporary public librarianship.

Why does one become a public librarian? A common response is that it’s incidental to a love of reading, or an inspirational hometown librarian. But what does a librarian end up being— a mother figure? A social worker? A jaded burnout? As the role of librarian grows and changes, how can they adapt to serve a changing patronage that increasingly includes, for example, the homeless population, bringing a whole new set of responsibilities to the position? And how do we prep librarians for these new responsibilities?


Street Card from Baltimore County Public Library website


As Alberto Manguel recently wrote in the New York Times, “libraries have become largely social centers. Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online”(MANGUEL web). Many of these are homeless patrons utilizing resources unavailable outside of a library. This fact necessitates a response from the library community. The American Library Association has a growing list of homeless-oriented library programs implemented across the country. The scope ranges wildly in what these programs offer; the Baltimore County Public Library’s  “Street Card” program, is listed— essentially just a card with information pertaining to available assistance with employment, food, emergencies, health, legal issues, and shelter, among other things (ALA web). This seems a small, painless implementation, but with greater implications— these cards are a response to the daily experience of the librarian, which involves interaction with a population that has not been adequately served by the right institutions (homeless shelters, etc.) and are now seeking to use the library in a different manner than most librarians would, I’m sure, ideally imagine.

The programs get more involved throughout the list: public librarians in Denver actually lead off-site visits to shelters for homeless and low-income women to give lessons on interviewing techniques, technology skills, and provide free bus tokens and library cards. Even more radically, San Francisco Public Library formed a homeless and poverty outreach with the city’s Department of Public Health and hired the nation’s first full-time, in-house social worker. The library recruits formerly homeless patrons to assist with the outreach program, and the program is lead by a psychiatrist!

In light of this, is it enough to equip public librarians with research skills? Should Social work be a part of the education of the public librarian? Perhaps. As the role of librarian and that of social worker are becoming increasingly inextricable in certain library environments, the only course of action can be to prepare these currently ill-equipped Street-Level Bureaucrats by teaching them the skills required to navigate their workspace.

Manguel has different beliefs, saying “a library is not a homeless shelter (at the St. Agnes library in New York, I witnessed a librarian explaining to a customer why she could not sleep on the floor), a nursery or a fun fair (the Seneca East Public Library in Attica, Ohio, offers pajama parties), or a prime provider of social support and medical care (which American librarians today nonetheless routinely give)” (MANGUEL web). He has a point, but why deny the fact that libraries no longer serve simply as havens for books and research? Why not equip librarians with more specific social-work skills that, coupled with their librarian skills, can help them to truly impact and better the communities that they serve?


Sources Cited

Lipsky, Michael. “Toward A Theory of Street-Level Bureaucrats.” Institute for Research on Poverty. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1969.

Manguel, Alberto. “Reinventing the Library.” New York Times 23 Oct 2015. Web. <>

“Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement.” American Library Association. Web. Accessed 27 Oct 2015. <> 

The Revolution Will Be Supervised

By brookemorrison

What does it mean to be free? The definition changes as society changes. Generally, “freedom” is a buzzword touted by political candidates, right-wingers, the figures of wartime. It is a term that is only used when the situation calls for its defense— when certain “freedoms” might be attacked. There is a “freedom” in carrying a weapon wherever you feel like it; there is a “freedom” in being able to marry the person you love. However, there are also the less-obvious freedoms that are willingly sacrificed every day, increasingly so as every person creates content and supplies data via tiny computers that are perpetually tracking their everyday whereabouts. Are we free if we are being mined for data without compensation or, necessarily, awareness? Our search engines, our social media, our texts, phone calls, emails, bank statements, all are being monitored (as blatantly evidenced in targeted advertising: “hmmm, we see that you’ve been browsing your Facebook friend’s wedding photos… want to browse some wedding dresses?”).


Tom McClean reveals just how deeply entwined economy and information truly are in the United States, in his article “Who Pays the Piper? The political economy of freedom of information.”[1] It is in the interest of corporations that we have freedom of information, for several reasons, not the least of which being that they can become more effective by knowing government policy and intended changes in policy in order to protect themselves when it comes to utilizing information. We are all closely observed, in various carefully-executed, and legal, circumstances.

There is the inevitable omission of privacy in our contemporary technological society; thus, our conceptions of freedom must absorb the notion that we can no longer be truly alone in the world (save for drastic, perhaps eremitical measures). We no longer have a means of escape from government surveillance, or from accidental interconnectivity with our fellow citizens via things like location-based apps or targeted advertising influenced by our perceived relationships with others on the Internet. As long as a person is using the Internet there is, generally, a trail of observation close behind them.

While it doesn’t sound particularly Utopian to accept that we will be forever (and closely) monitored, this reality usually does not affect the life of the individual. Most people are walking around uninhibited by the knowledge that their faces are being scanned by security cameras, their spending habits are being tracked by credit card companies, or that their phone calls might be routinely scanned for various buzzwords. Again, the question of freedom usually only enters the conversation once something goes noticeably wrong.


There are innumerable horrors to be inflicted on the Internet; Internet bullying has become a real issue in school-age children across the world, identity theft is on the rise, and swatting is a thing. These are the ugly parts of a democratic landscape, where the middleman screen sits between the tormentor and the victim.

However, you can’t have one without the other— the argument is that the freedom of speech does not apply only to kindly worded or informative content. Ann Coulter has the right to bring words like “retarded” and “faggot” into political discussion just as much as the New York Times has the right to publish articles on whatever content they choose, without fear that their voices will be suppressed. This is the freedom of expression, which exists because of the first amendment of the United States constitution, and a pretty well-acknowledged truth that in this country you can say what you like (this is obviously not the case in other Internet cultures).

However, can we really say what we like on the Internet? Can we conduct research safely, securely, without being persecuted? Well, no. Not really.

There are a few ways that this unfortunate fact manifests itself— for example, and most recognizably, on Facebook. In Facebook’s data policy, they write: “We may access, preserve and share [the user’s] information in response to a legal request (like a search warrant, court order or subpoena) if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.” [2]

This is a tricky situation. Most people treat Facebook as an extension of their reality, which means that the rights and freedoms exercised outside the computer (read: the general ability to do/say most of the things you’d like without persecution, as long as you are not physically harming or harassing someone near you) are believed to exist within the context of this social media platform where our communication is intended for our friends, family, and colleagues.

However: what about stupid remarks made on Facebook regarding guns, death threats, etc., often in the context of a joke? In an instance like this, is freedom of speech being compromised? It’s true that it is also unlawful to threaten death, to cause harm or to harass those around us. But is the freedom of expression and the law that says you can’t threaten to kill the President (even as a joke) mutually exclusive? While it’s not exactly the most inviting example, it does get to the heart of what we can and cannot express on the Internet. It is, after all, common knowledge that the police regularly use Facebook to implicate citizens.

How do we try to navigate this landscape of policed “free” expression? The user is responsible for himself, but institutions might be able to assist the individual. For example, the public library in Lebanon, New Hampshire is making an attempt as one of the last bastions of the right to privacy. It was the first public library in the country to install Tor exit relays on its public terminals, thus protecting the identity of users in terms of finding out just who searched for what, or what activities were performed by which user. Homeland Security, of course, quickly objected, and shut the operation down.[3]

Perhaps the answer to freedom lies then in complete transparency, on both sides? Perhaps the governing institution should make it clear to the user just what and when information is being collected. A great example of this is UC Berkeley, which is the first university in the United States to publish transparency reports to the public, detailing government requests for information.[4]

If we cannot be allowed our curtain of privacy, why not enforce the laws that require the government to pull back theirs? As McClean writes, “access to official files arguably contributes to the “predictability” of government.”[5] If we know what they’re looking for, we know how to protect ourselves— this has become the conversation of present-day freedoms.



  1. Mclean, Tom. “Who pays the piper? The political economy of freedom of information,” 2010. Department of Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK.
  2. Facebook’s Data Policy. Accessed 30 September 2015.<>
  3. Koehler, Jason. “A Dozen Libraries Want to Host Tor Nodes to Protest Government Fearmongering.” VICE: Motherboard. 17 September 2015. Web. Accessed 27 September 2015. <>
  4. Glaser, April. “Every College Should Issue a Transparency Report About Government Requests for Student Data.” Slate. 18 September 2015. Web. Accessed 20 September 2015. <>
  5. Mclean, Tom. “Who pays the piper?…”
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