Losing My Magical Powers? How to Provide the Best Content

Libraries are often considered places of wonder and magic.  The association is made with stories that live there, particularly those of literal magic and fantasy such as Harry Potter.  Sometimes, the very concept of writing and literature is felt to be magical.  Both apply: libraries are special places, in part because of the content they offer. Some of that content is hidden by paywalls or other restrictions to the “free web.”.

Occasionally, too, librarians are viewed as magicians, when they obtain hard-to-locate sources within the “Invisible internet” or demystify the complexities of advanced database or Google searching techniques.

These are all valid and helpful associations.

But, increasingly, I feel as if our powers are fading and outside forces are casting a spell upon us.  I am speaking, in this case, of our databases and journal articles and the content we provide to our patrons in this manner.

I have tried to offer access to the richness of mainstream periodicals and journals with our library services.  I do not want any patron, faculty or student, to have to pay for The Washington Post or Atlantic Magazine or even most journals.  Essentially, with the help of our library databases, I try to offer an internal, miniaturized version of the best of the web. Or, that is my intention anyway, perhaps naive.  This is a radical, even magical, idea that all libraries, from public to academic, offer to one extent or another.

However, I am increasingly stymied in this ambition.  I speak specifically of the increasing supplemental and interactive content.  I do not expect to provide access to the New York Times games, although that would be great.  But I do want to offer interactive maps that accompany articles, for example.  But my biggest conundrum is access to the proliferating “newsletters” and bonus content offered by magazines and journals, from The Atlantic to America Magazine.  Too often, these are not included or offered too late to be of much value to my patrons.  

At the same time, I believe such features will only expand as media companies try to entice more personal subscribers.  With that, the power of the library fades, as more content is out of reach.  So, the big question, what can I/We do about this?  Accept that more patrons will need to purchase content on their own, will that make libraries less special, magical?  Suggestions and ideas are welcome.

Building Knowledge in the Age of AI

I was tempted, but this blog was not written by AI or any Chatbox, one who loves me or not. But this piece is all about AI and its implications for librarians and education.  It seems we can expect a flood of texts written by AI from now on.  The question is how reliable will they be? Will the program pull from authoritative sources?  

As of now, AI  has no access to the “invisible internet” of database resources or print books that have not been digitized.  Nor, does it have materials uploaded after 2021.  When these programs scan sources, how will they determine the value of the sites? Just look for similar language and phrases? These questions have important consequences: for example, a  recent Nature article noted that scientists were fooled by such texts.

The increasing usage and acceptance of AI, presents challenges and new opportunities.  Perhaps the most important skill or students will need going forward will be to assess the accuracy and relevance of texts.  Yesterday, for example, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program announced that it would accept AI  generated material if cited properly. Matt Glanville observed that “When AI can essentially write an essay at the touch of a button, we need our pupils to master different skills, such as understanding if the essay is any good or if it has missed context, has used biased data or if it is lacking in creativity.” So, assessing content will be vital.  Granville states, “These will be far more important skills than writing an essay, so the assessment tasks we set will need to reflect this.” This approach is fine as long as students have time in school and home, to acquire this content in the age of distraction.

Emphasizing skills rather than content has become a trend lately. Memorizing facts is seen as boring and unnecessary.  The idea being students should learn the skills to “do” history and science like  the professionals..  Content could be learned later, or just by “googling” something as the need arose  But if you don’t have a solid foundation of basic facts, how you can judge the credibility of AI-generated content?   Will readers take the time to assess each fact?  Of course, these demands were present with human-generated content, but now the need is greater.  Perhaps it will help that the National Council of Teachers of English is placing greater emphasis on reading nonfiction.  

Of course, the role of librarians is clear: acquire and highlight noteworthy, human-authored background content and nonfiction so that students can build this important reservoir of background knowledge when they encounter new texts, regardless of who or what created it. Encourage the idea that reading for information can be fun, especially if connected with previous knowledge and interesting facts.  It will be essential in a world dominated by texts produced in 5 minutes by AI.


Replacing Dewey? Rearranging Knowledge? Perspectives on Genres in Nonfiction

Dewey is dead or dying.  There seems to be consensus in libraries across the spectrum that the Dewey Decimal System  is both problematic and outdated. Some of the many reasons cited include:

  1. Categories based in the Nineteenth Century fail to incorporate modern scientific and technological changes ranging from computers to the Space Age, and are then “plugged” in to odd, and often inconsistent, places such as 000s, 600s, and more.
  2. There are considerable biases in religion (most of the 200s are dedicated to Christianity with other religions declared to be “other” and crowded into the 290s.
  3.  The social sciences are rife with outdated and biased approaches to 21st Century problems and conditions.

For all these reasons, and many more, I decided to rearrange/genrify Dewey within my High School library.  Developing a new genre-based system is certainly not as easy as it might seem on paper.

Given the move to digital resources and limited space, I weeded a considerable number of print books from the collection.  Even so, I still had to reckon with arranging nonfiction since I was not eliminating it altogether.

What I came up with provoked philosophical and intellectual questions even as I moved titles around, playing “musical books:”

Essentially, I broke up everything and merged areas together to arrive at:

  • Philosophy and religious studies–however I merged mythology with folk and fairy tales (regardless of origins, and rightly or wrongly, readers now see them simply as another form of story)
  • Arts and music (however, sports and games are moved to a new section entitled “Daily Life” which encompasses cooking, food, holidays, etc.)
  • I created a new Health and Wellness section which includes psychology from the 100s, anxiety from the 600s, and biology from the 500s. 
  • A new civil rights section includes African Americans works from the 300s, and criminal justice reform (which could equally well go in my constitution/law/politics section)
  • A new media/journalism area now includes internet and social media as well as propaganda.
  • History now features Ancient History (all civilizations, no more emphasis just on Rome, Greece and Egypt) 
  • Middle Ages (throughout the world) This time period was the zenith of civilization for many cultures who had no “dark ages.”
  • The Twentieth Century unfortunately is broken into wars: World Wars One, Two, etc. Here, I combined all books on the subjects including literature and arts–all books on Vietnam were previously divided into American, Vietnamese, etc, similar to the Cold War which brings together related titles from the 300s and 900s, bridging disciplines and countries.

On a related note, the 800s no longer exist, with every form of literature joining novels in a literary section. Focused on the idea of story, there are subsections for novels (in turn divided by genre), short stories, poems. Dramatic works merged with theater from the 700s. As mentioned, this area also includes the myths/fairytales. It is interesting that for ages libraries considered novels “fiction” but other forms were “nonfiction.” 

My next conundrum is Graphic Novels.  I believe these are a literary form of their own right.  But what of Graphic Nonfiction?  These are not fiction.  I think I would place them in the best subject area.

This process is a work in progress.  I welcome suggestions. It has certainly opened my eyes to the complexity of revising Dewey. This process instilled a new awareness of interconnectedness and the arbitrary compartmentalization of knowledge, however necessary it is to facilitate easy tracking of materials.