Usage Data and the Evolution of Libraries

By michaelbeiser

The survival and utilization of libraries is in many ways interlinked with their visibility, or how much value and relevance they are seen as having within their wider communities. Proof of library value is in turn related to budgeting within institutions, how money is allocated, and to the general satisfaction of users at large. Digitization of records has created new issues for libraries, as circulation data can be used as an asset for demonstrating library value, or as a means for them to compete with other 21st century means of book/information retrieval. But as libraries find new ways to feel relevant to users, they must also face new challenges to their roles as centers of privacy.

Recently I did a field observation at the Humanities Campus Library at West 18th St, where I spoke with Campus Librarian Lisa Egan. Ms. Egan had been hired the previous school year, when the library re-opened after being closed for years. She has worked hard to develop the book collection almost entirely from scratch, a task complicated by the reality of the library being designated for serving the needs of six different schools, including Quest, James Baldwin, and Hudson- all different schools with varying age groups, curriculums, and teaching needs.
During a busy lunch period, as middle school aged students with lunch passes filed in, checked out books, and scrambled for computers, Ms. Egan explained the importance of circulation records. During the entirety of the first year it was re-opened, the number of books circulated by the library totaled 880, a fairly low number given the student population it serves numbers over 2,000, but this year it the number was already at 600. Although still low, this was a sign of higher student usage, and equally importantly, data that could be used to demonstrate the value of the library to the school and its community. And while Ms. Egan expressed gratitude for the funding and grants she received, she also said that she was struggling to attain what she considered to be a comprehensive non-fiction collection for the students.
Looking around the library, there was an impressive amount of students making use of its facilities (students have a choice during their post-lunch recess to go to the gym, hang out in a common area, or go to the library). Students of varying ages came to request books; some wanted dystopian novels like Hunger Games, some older students were looking for what Ms. Egan called “gritty urban romance novels.” Also in the library were parent volunteers, interested in getting involved and helping the library thrive. It seemed hard to imagine that there could be question marks surrounding the value of the library, but I as Joanna Fantozzi explained in “Clearing the Shelves,” at the moment there is lobbying in Albany to get waivers over the law necessitating libraries for all public schools in New York. I was also told that even if the importance of the library itself wasn’t in question, there were numerous other ways it could be encroached on, from giving up part of its space to a speech teacher, to principals using funds library funds to buy supplies for other teachers.

While it can be seen how circulation data is important to the visibility of the value of the library in the tough world of public schools and their funding, other ways in which libraries have attempted to use circulation data to increase visibility have been more problematic. In a November 5, 2012 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry described the backlash felt by librarians at Harvard after a social media experiment with Twitter went wrong. The idea had been to set up Twitter feeds with the names of books being checked out from libraries on campus, complete with links to the book’s library catalog entry. Despite precautionary measures to protect privacy (checkout times were randomized by the Twitter stream, and the identities of the people checking items out were not given), the practice was controversial and quickly suspended.
The Harvard Library’s Twitter incident is a good example of what privacy-and-social-media scholar Michael Zimmer calls “a Faustian bargain” facing libraries as they expand into digital services. In order to make use of the internet as it has come to be, with all of sharing of social and personal information, libraries will have to make use of and encourage greater degrees of personal information from users. In order to make library catalogs more similar to online services like Amazon, with its ability to provide recommendations based on personalized taste, libraries would also have to track the browsing and borrowing habits of customers.
The idea of tracking users and their borrowing habits in this way may seem a mere theoretical problem; sure, the ideal of “privacy” might be sacrificed but wouldn’t this be made up for by libraries appealing to more people who, to be honest, already face this lack of privacy throughout their lives? Is this much different from Ms. Egan, the school librarian, suggesting books to her high school students based on her knowledge of their past likes and dislikes, or from her gentle suggestions to younger students who find their way into books meant for the older and more “mature” teenagers that there might be other books they’d like better instead? These are important considerations, but the centrality of user privacy at libraries should not be turned over so lightly. In his article, Mr. Parry describes how states had to pass laws requiring libraries to keep data private in response to attempts in the 70s and 80s by the FBI to spy on scholars by enticing library clerks to disclose information on their reading and borrowing habits. In the culture of surveillance and information flow we live in, there is a strong argument for the continuing practice of privacy by libraries.

Despite these dilemmas, new solutions have been explored as well. Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab developed LibraryCloud as a means for libraries to share metadata, with the idea that with metadata collected from different libraries developers could use them in the development of new services. Another project called StackLife shows users how books have been used in their communities by measuring “importance”- quantified using information like how many libraries own the book, how often it’s been checked out, etc.
It is clear from these examples that digital records hold a lot of potential for libraries to develop and evolve. What form this evolution will take remains open.


Fantozzi, Joanna. 2013. Clearing the Shelves. (accessed November 28, 2013).

Parry, Marc. 2012. As Libraries Go Digital, Sharing of Data Is at Odds With Tradition of Privacy. (accessed November 28, 2013).

Benjamin, the Record Collector, and Memory

By michaelbeiser

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin outlined the ways in which the technologies of photography and (especially) film had transformed the production and culture of art. Mechanical reproduction of objects lead to the loss of the “aura” of unique objects, art became severed from its ritualized “cult” tradition, and film, with its astounding capacity for camera trickery, was creating a new mass audience of “absent-minded” critics. One area of mechanical reproduction noticeably absent from Benjamin’s discussion, however, is that of sound or musical recording.
Musical records (vinyl) were certainly prevalent in mass culture by the time Benjamin was writing in the 1930s. Like the mediums in discussion, records became an embodiment of what he called “the work of art designed for reproducibility.” He gives the example of the photographic negative, from which an unlimited number of prints could be made. For Benjamin, artistic production in this sense marks the loss of “authenticity” as an applicable criterion; as he says, it would make no sense to ask for the “authentic” print of a photograph. His conclusion is that this loss also signifies a total reversal of the function of art, where “instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” But to return to the record (and my focus of discussion, the record collector), the terms “authenticity” and “ritual” are striking. In the parlance of the music obsessed of the early 21st century, the reproducible form of the record is equated with “authenticity”, and its modes of use tied to something resembling “ritual.”
In 2013, music as it is commonly experienced by listeners often has no material substance, it is another file to be downloaded from the internet at the click of a button, to be uploaded to an iphone later. Images associated with songs or albums are tiny and inconsequential. And yet there remains a section of the population for whom vinyl (and to a lesser extent other physical forms like tape) remains the most pure and true embodiment of musical transmission.
The UK-based music journalist/blogger Matt Ingram, who wrote online under the Woebot moniker, is a great example of this record collector mentality, at least to a certain crowd. From 2003 to 2008, he blogged about his lifelong journey with music, starting from his time as a teenage postpunk fan, to discovering dance music like early house, UK hardcore, breakbeat jungle, garage, and later grime, while also exploring earlier musics like dub reggae, jazz, krautrock, early electronic music, 60s English folk, prog, and other genres along the way. In all of his blog posts, he would catalog and share his impressions of LPs from disparate genres, lovingly uploading album cover images and information, while also sharing personal recollections of finding albums. He also sought to create an alternate canon, a response to the general popular music taste-making where only certain names make it into the classic rock or hip-hop “Archive.” In 2005 he posted a list of what he considered to be the 100 greatest records ever, using a trite list convention borrowed from magazines to showcase music brilliant and sometimes overlooked, a list of unseen or forgotten music currents.
As a side note, after Ingram stopped blogging, all of the written online content (and a fantastic but short-lived online “TV” show) he had created disappeared from the internet, another casualty of digital resources not being preserved. Finally in January 2013, all of his writing as Woebot was organized as a huge digital archive available for download as an ebook called The Big Book of Woe.
For Ingram records, already material documents of musical expression, became re-inscribed with personal history. The “aura” that Benjamin bemoaned the loss of seemed to be re-instated, both through the process of “digging” to find records, ie the search for unique and rare items, but also through the personal significance these particular items gained (even if they were reproductions). Ingram, for example, swore that his copy of Manuel Goettsching’s 1984 release “E2-E4,” had magical properties other copies didn’t have. As a more practical example, Detroit producer/DJ Theo Parrish had claimed to have records that “smell like 1967,” again drawing a connection between a record’s material being and its historical substance. On his blog, Ingram never uploaded mp3s or streamed music, perhaps both a nod to respecting the rights of musicians to be paid for their work, but also not so subtly suggesting that the true or “authentic” way for enjoying music was to seek it out and have an experience. In the end, one came away with the sense that Woebot wasn’t exactly a music blog, but a blog about a lifetime of living with music.
Might Benjamin have argued against this “aura” of records? He warned against the idea that film actors have auras, saying this had been replaced by the machinery of Hollywood hype and glamour, exterior to movies themselves. But in the case of the type of record collector being discussed here, much of the music was made or found in relative obscurity, or at least by people far from the kind of obsession with celebrity associated with film. A better argument could be made that it is simply another symptom of late capitalism, perhaps a fetishization of the rare or obscure for commodity value. But this overlooks the role record collection can play in personal and collective experience, which is maybe where the role of the idea of the “ritual” comes in.
Theo Parrish (aforementioned producer and DJ) has argued tirelessly in interviews for the superiority of DJing with vinyl, saying that though someone could show up with a laptop or ipod with tens of thousands of songs on them, they are at a disadvantage to someone with a more limited selection of records, who knows those records intimately through amassing them over a period of years and getting to know their ins and outs. This might seem a minor point, but the power of musical connection and identification becomes clearer when he describes a life-changing experience as a 15 year old. He was out at a party to hear underground Chicago House music legend Lil Louis, who unexpectedly play Stevie Wonder’s “As” at the beginning of his set. “I didn’t expect to hear this on the soundsystem with 1000-2000 other black kids… and that experience from my youth just touched me directly…” It was a song Parrish could directly connect to childhood memories of listening to records with his mother; Lil Louis’s record selection tapped into the archive of memory that much of his audience shared. As Parrish says, “I didn’t understand what a party was about… and a party in a lot of senses at that point in Chicago was bridging the gap between where you knew safety was – home- to a communal experience. And this song did it.” Unlike the movie audiences of Benjamin’s movie house, absorbing what they saw on the screen into themselves, this type of group dynamic (created by an individual selecting records from a personal collection) created unrepeatable moments where the audience was both absorbed into the experience and absorbing it. People who were at events like this often ascribed a spiritual or religious quality to their experience, precisely that which Benjamin seemed to think had been lost.
Writing in 1936 as a German Jewish exile, Benjamin was amazingly prescient not just about the state of reproduction leading to the coming war, but to the culture of audience as critics we now live in. Anyone with access to a computer can write or share opinions, no matter how mindless. But hopefully looking through the lens of records and music obsession can show that art can serve as more than just a function of politics, and that archived or collected memories can create new meaningful experiences.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” trans. Andy Blunden (UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 1998).
“Woebot’s ‘The 100 Greatest Records Ever,’” accessed October 23, 2014.
“Theo Parrish,” accessed October 24, 2014.–3-cheers-for-the-d

Government Shutdown and Libraries

By michaelbeiser

The recent government shutdown in Washington DC has been an unavoidable news subject of the last few weeks, from dismay with House Republicans holding the government hostage, to the concerns about glitches users experienced trying to access new health care websites. But there have been some surprising reverberations in the seemingly calm world of librarians and researchers as well; the Library of Congress was closed and its website offline for a few days, as were websites for the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Science Foundation, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other websites like PubMed were operational but went without updates. The National Archives and Records Administration also had to put 1,932 of its employees on unpaid furlough, meaning partial closures of the 13 Presidential libraries across the country which are NARA-administered. These were all major losses for researchers across the country whose work relies on both physical records and electronic databases.
And there were other ways in which the shutdown was felt. Inside Higher Ed’s website noted that the shutdown was causing disruption in disparate conferences, such as a digital humanities conference sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the annual conference for the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science held in Austin, Texas. New research grants at the NIH, NSF, and other federal agencies were stopped as well, and intramural research at the NIH was also largely on hold while new patients were not being admitted into clinical trials at the agency’s medical center in Bethesda, Maryland.
The shutdown began October 1, when lawmakers failed to pass a budget agreement after heated debate over implementation of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. This in turn led to the furlough of almost a million federal workers, and the closure of federal institutions like museums and national parks. As to be expected, blame for the shutdown-related problems and disruptions was shifted back and forth between parties. House Republicans introduced bills to provide stopgap funding for the NIH through mid-December, as well as bills to cover funding for the District of Columbia’s operating budget, national parks and museums, and veteran’s benefits. But these bills are unlikely to pass the Senate, and the White House as vowed to veto them, decrying the “piecemeal fashion” of these bills, and calling on the House to “reopen all of the Government.” The American Council on Education, took a cautious stance on the Republican proposal, with Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Terry Hartle saying “We would obviously like to see the entire government reopen and some departments in particular, NIH and NSF, would top our list. But this is an intense, totally political controversy. It’s unlikely that we’re going to insert ourselves in it.”
The stance of neutrality for those representing education resources is understandable and predictable in this situation. In the world of research, academics, and libraries, there is always a need to at least maintain the appearance of non-partisanship, and perhaps a sense that it is best not to rock the boat while waiting for everything to return to a state of normalcy. But should there be more of a sense of outrage? Would it be better to approve of Republican measures to provide stopgap funding for essential services to keep them running, or is it more important to fight the political fight with politics? There are certainly those in the field who believe in the ultimate importance of defending health care. And yet, perhaps there should be some resentment on the part of those in these services (again, always with the ideal of neutrality in mind) whose work is caught up in the larger political machinations of Washington.
There have also been some questions regarding the decision to shutdown websites; while closing physical institutions is perhaps understandable, the maintenance of a website shouldn’t be so difficult or costly. But websites require workers as well, and left unattended could be vulnerable.
It is tempting to read the situation as a failure of bureaucracy, where foolish top-down policies are put into play by the controlling men at the highest point in the federal food-chain, and the effects ripple below to the people below, be they library workers, veterans, park workers or visitors. But perhaps it is a more systemic level problem: our federal institution systems are perhaps rigid and lumbering, and all the actors in this drama are probably doing the most towards what they genuinely believe is right.
Several decades ago Michael Lipsky wrote about the problems facing workers he called “street-level bureaucrats”, meaning the lowest level of government workers who actually work face to face with the public. While he outlined how problematic their work could be (mostly referring to policemen, school teachers, and judges), he also spoke to a possibility for these low-level workers to actually implement policy beyond that which was dictated from above. Is there room in this government shutdown situation for lower level players to affect action? It might be hard to see where librarians fit into this picture of “street-level bureaucrats”, but one bright spot of the shutdown was Washington D.C. mayor Vincent Gray deeming librarians and other local government workers “essential.” In the face of this situation, there has been one bright spot. Normally, such a shutdown would see “non-essential” services like parks and libraries closed in Washington D.C. (due to the special status of the city, which needs Congress’s approval for any budget). But Mayor Vincent Gray defied the federal government, and opted to keep D.C.’s public libraries open.
Maybe there is perhaps a tension here- it is true that it can be harder to see the direct relationship between the work of a librarian in a library and the work of a policeman keeping law and order. But librarians and other researchers do perform vital services for the community on both a local and national level, and it is important that as profession librarians see themselves as being as worthy as others. Professional neutrality need not mean professional self-effacement. Beyond the temporary shutdown situation, there is room for the field of librarianship to assert itself, and improve itself. In the meantime, the Library of Congress’s website at least is now up again. Now if some work could be done on some of the more archaic LCC categorizations (yes, I mean “Oriental language and literatures”) before the next shutdown. That will be for another blog.

Lipsky, Michael (1969). “Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, NYC

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