Having never been to Charleston Conference, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Honestly, it was a mixed bag.
Some of the highlights:
- The inspiring opening keynote from the benevolent mad genius Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, whose talk served as kind of a dispatch from the front lines of the war on truth. After the 2016 election, Kahle committed the Internet Archive to improving the verifiability of source citations on Wikipedia, which are often quickly lost due to webpage changes or deletions. Kahle announced that the Internet Archive is now auto-archiving any web source linked from Wikipedia, and since starting, the Wayback Machine has fixed more than 10 million broken citation links. Similarly, the IA is improving book citations in Wikipedia by linking directly to the IA’s massive collection of digitized books–right down to the correct page number–and users can instantly borrow the digital copy of the book through Controlled Digital Lending, the digital analog to “own one, loan one” print lending. If that wasn’t enough, Kahle wants the IA to ramp up their book digitization efforts to fulfill a “wish list” of about 4 million high-demand titles, and so Kahle has funded a new non-profit, Better World Libraries, that now owns Better World Books, providing the IA with a steady stream of books for its digitization efforts. See? Benevolent mad genius. The keynote is very much worth watching.
- A fantastic panel from developers and users of the collaborative open publishing platform PubPub. A theme of the conference was the disintegration of traditional formats and scholarship practices, and this panel was a good example of how librarians, publishers, and scholars are working together to make the process of scholarship more open, collaborative, and accessible. This panel focused on publishing, but much of what the panelists were saying, especially how Liz Milewicz from Duke spoke about Duke Libraries’ support for “expansive” digital scholarship projects, really resonated with how I’m personally trying to shift the conversation around open and digital pedagogy here at WFU: process over product, iterative development over time, non-conformity to traditional modalities, multiplicity of contributors, and values centered on making labor visible and investing in community-managed resources.
- Given that publishers had a strong showing, it was no surprise that there was a good deal of OER content. I was happy to participate on a panel on faculty experiences with discovery and adoption of OER, where I talked about the concept of open pedagogy and how, when we work with students to shift from an information consumption model to an information production model in the classroom, we stand to benefit from student-produced OER that can be built upon and re-integrated into the curriculum indefinitely.
That said, there was so much about this conference that bothered me. It definitely stems from this being a vendor-friendly industry conference rather than an academic conference. I was approaching it from a teaching perspective that I don’t believe is traditionally that well represented at this conference, so perhaps my judgment is too harsh, but allow me to explain.
Many of the sessions, including a provocatively-titled standing-room-only panel, focused on the hot-button issues of privacy and learning analytics and how these issues are often in conflict with traditional library values. I’m by no means an expert on these topics, but I do try to keep up with them. I’m skeptical of anyone who approaches student privacy with a paternalistic, “we know what’s best” attitude, especially those who go so far as to suggest that because they participate so willingly in social media platforms, that maybe students don’t care about their privacy. Unfortunately, that’s what I felt was being served up in most of the conversations I heard, and this is frustrating–and even negligent–for a number of reasons:
- Students do care about their privacy; they just don’t have a traditional understanding of it and generally lack any awareness of what data their institutions collect about them. The Data Doubles Project, a big-ol’ high-profile multi-year IMLS-funded research study is looking specifically at this issue from a library perspective. One early finding suggests that when they’re asked explicitly about issues related to data collection and their trust in libraries, and given explanations, students present quite a nuanced take that is far more sophisticated than most give them credit for. In the conversations I heard, the only mention of this research was from Adam Beauchamp from Florida State University during the Q&A portion, and his question was mostly dismissed by the panel. A shame.
- One panelist suggested that perhaps our insistence on a traditional, conservative stance on privacy issues in libraries is problematic because it is a value that is rooted in the same white, privileged, westernized perspective as the profession of librarianship as a whole. While I can’t argue with that, and do appreciate the panelist’s willingness to be introspective, it felt to me like the panelist was waving a “wokeness” wand as an attempt to suggest that libraries are out of touch with the rest of the world, and that maybe we should just admit that there’s no expectation of privacy anymore. It also completely ignores the rapidly growing body of work from researchers–perhaps most notably women of color–who are now articulating the ways that algorithms and predictive analytics are further reinforcing white supremacy and further marginalizing already marginalized communities. See Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression and Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology, among a bunch of others.
- Involving third parties in these privacy decisions is so entirely inappropriate that I don’t even know where to begin. One of the panels was on the “vendor perspectives” of the “ethical use of library analytics.” I will fully admit that there are things we can do right now with student data that will more closely align our services with student expectations of modern service providers. Providing a list of their borrowing history, or recommending related books, for example. There are also things we can do with student data that will more easily allow us to convey library impact on student success: reference transactions leading to better grades, or database usage leading to higher-quality work, for example. And certainly, if our vendors had access to these data, they can more closely align their products with our students’ needs. But there’s the rub: we would be trading our student’s data exhaust for better products, which translates directly into profit for our vendors. I have a big problem with student data being monetized, which, as far as third parties are concerned, is exactly the point of learning analytics. With more and more companies hoovering up our data in the name of “service improvements,” why on earth would libraries forfeit their status as one of the most trusted institutions by acquiescing to a future in which surveillance is the cost of doing business?
It wasn’t all bad, though. Charleston itself was lovely. I had never been before! I had what were probably the #3 and #5 best meals of my entire life there, so there’s that. I took a picture of my dinner exactly once, but it was afterward, and it was a skeleton of a fish, so I won’t post it here. You’re welcome.