Recent recommended reads: governance, geography, feminism

In an era of disinformation, educating yourself and others is an act of resistance 🙂 Here are my recent highly recommended reads:

The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe [publisher | WorldCat] – gives an overview of some examples of bad government decision-making, and then outlines the circumstances which allowed these blunders to happen.  There are lessons here for all organisations – for example:

  • Brainstorming Murphy’s Law – think about all the things that can go wrong, and plan for them.
  • Objection is often misconstrued as obstruction – listen to criticisms and pay attention to potential pitfalls.
  • Ensure that the people responsible for the idea are accountable for the outcome.
  • Rather than just focusing on lauding innovations, which may be poorly thought-out or badly delivered, reward those whose initiatives are still in place several years down the line.

Prisoners of Geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics by Tim Marshall [publisher | WorldCat] – a fascinating tour of how physical geography influences borders and nations.  “Strip out the lines of nation states, and the map Ivan the Terrible confronted is the same one Vladimir Putin is faced with to this day.”

Men explain things to me by Rebecca Solnit [publisher | WorldCat] – I would particularly recommend this 2014 edition, with its beautiful paintings by Ana Teresa Fernandez.  Seven essays on the theme of gender and power – essential reading for everyone.


Conflicting priorities on information security

EBSCO have just released a White Paper “from our partner, OpenAthens”, The Evolution of Authentication and the Importance of Information Security.

The focus is very much on the information security of EBSCO’s subscription content.  There is no mention of user privacy, despite the fact how individuals want their data to be used is often in conflict with how corporations want to use this information.

Rather like the Leave campaign’s messages that voting for Brexit would be all gains and no losses, ignoring the complexity of complex decisions creates blind spots and vulnerabilities in systems and societies.  I would like politicians and corporations to stop patronising us with simple, comforting, false solutions and engage bravely and intelligently with difficult decision-making.

Observe what happens if you click on “Download your copy for free today to continue reading”:

Please fill out the form to receive your free copy of The Evolution of Authentication and the Importance of Information Security. Fill out the form and immediately receive the white paper. The fields requested are: Name, Email, Organization Name, City, Phone. All fields except Phone are required.

je dis ça, je dis rien

See also: EBSCO EDS and Single-Sign On, and Consumer democracy? (reference to Adam Curtis’ film Bitter Lake, describing how politicians create oversimplified good vs evil stories rather than confronting the realities of a complex world).

Reith Lectures 2016 – Kwame Anthony Appiah on identities

This year’s Reith Lectures by Kwame Anthony Appiah on “Mistaken Identities” feel very timely, given the state of the world in 2016.  Here they are, in listening order, with links to hear them via the BBC website:

  1. Creed – Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says we overestimate scripture in our view of faith
  2. Country – Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues against a mythical and romantic view of nationhood
  3. Colour – Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues for a world free of racial fixations
  4. Culture – Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah asks us to give up the idea of western civilisation

For me, there’s a missing element from this series – gender – but still, these four 1-hour episodes are well worth a listen, and they take you on a gallop through a lot of ideas in a (relatively) short time.

Identity politics has long been part of my life, way before I knew it had a name.  Here are some thoughts about the differences between identities and labels:

  • Chosen by me / applied by others
  • Describing / defining
  • Empowering / limiting
  • One among multiple dimensions of identity / single attribute excludes other dimensions of a person
  • Co-exist with other attributes (but see also intersectionality) / conflict or compete
  • Flexible and dynamic / static and confining

Who decides the extent and meaning of the identities or labels applied to oneself or others?  For example, who decides who counts as a Muslim, or a feminist, and speaks for them?  And how did something so individual and personal seem to be suddenly so public and political?

It’s lovely to know that the world can’t interfere with the inside of your head.

– Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

And it’s even better to know that you can expand your experience of the world, try on ideas, and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before shouting at strangers on the internet by reading loads and loads of books from a library…

Two paths in a wood: caring too much or caring too little?

I started using Twitter in 2009.  In the years since then, I have built relationships with lots of people on that platform, many of them librarians. Back in the day, many of us were “new professionals” (within the first 5 years or so of our careers after library school).

Perhaps it’s partly a cohort effect, that many of us are reaching early middle age (sorry), or at least the achieving some of the main milestones of adulthood at around the same time, but there’s a growing feeling that spending too much time checking in on the state of the world is all getting a bit much.

Just this evening, a friend has written of how Twitter has been her main adult company during her maternity leave this year, but the variety & depth of the world’s problems echoing in her head has caused her great anxiety and suffering. She says “I’m not going to forget, or give up.”  But cutting down on the frequency of checking in, and more time spent doing other things, will hopefully help to restore some perspective (alongside action where chosen). Note: this post has been published with her consent.

As we reach this time of our lives, in these times, it seems that our convictions, vocations, and politics are being sharply challenged. Maybe part of it is realising that we (probably) can’t save the world through libraries and education, and then deciding which battles to keep fighting.

Think global, act local.

I think the important thing is choosing to do something positive, no matter how small, rather than deciding it’s all too difficult and giving up altogether.

It is difficult to do good without unintended negative consequences. I took part in a discussion last weekend about the annual Christmas shoebox appeal, which I feel uncomfortable about because its religious evangelical dimension is often not made known. But as my friend pointed out, it’s an act of giving that many people can do, and do so generously. The recent safety pin dĂ©bâcle, which started out as a call to wear a safety pin to show solidarity with persons experiencing a range of exclusions was swiftly appropriated by some who wished harm to these people, or denounced by others as being a shallow, meaningless gesture.

It’s hard to know where to begin. But please don’t stop thinking about it, and do what you can.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

Europe Day / Schuman Day

9th May is Europe Day, also known as Schuman Day because it’s the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration.  When I was a pupil at the European School Brussels II, we had a half-day holiday on Schuman Day, and FootFest (sports and cultural programme) at around this time.

I’m not sure if these temporary reprieves from the academic timetable alone turned me into a committed European, but I think a good deal of Marcel Decombis’ European Schools mission statement became part of my identity:

Educated side by side, untroubled from infancy by divisive prejudices, acquainted with all that is great and good in the different cultures, it will be borne in upon them as they mature that they belong together. Without ceasing to look to their own lands with love and pride, they will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their fathers before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.

Being European is important to me, and yet so little of why it matters to me is reflected in the current media “debate” ahead of the EU Referendum on 23rd June.

Find out more about…

  • European Schools
  • Full Fact’s section on Europe – “Full Fact is the UK’s independent, non-partisan, factchecking charity.  We check claims made by politicians, the media, pressure groups, and other voices in public debate, and push for corrections where necessary“.
  • EU Referendum – including information on how to register to vote

Websites and weeding: I’m glad it’s not just me…

Take heart: you’re not the only one trying to make progress and feeling like you’re not getting anywhere fast.

I’ve just seen the following two blog posts that comforted me.

(1) Paul on overcoming library website despair

It ought to be easy for a group of “”information professionals” to keep a small-ish set of web pages up to date and intelligible, but it’s never really been something we’ve been able to do a good job of.

Deep breath; say it with me: “our library website sucks, and it’s our fault”.

Good web design looks simple, but it’s no simple task.  And it can be hard to convince senior colleagues with little experience of web design that (a) it requires time, (b) it often requires money and (c) technical expertise in usability and accessibility (rather than Prof X wants you to do it like this…) matters.  And just because a website was last overhauled in 2007 does not mean it is necessarily still fit for purpose – maintaining a web site is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge.

(2) My library hero Jenica on weeding

The question I find far more interesting than “should we keep it or should we discard it”, though, is how to compellingly present my argument about our collections, the idea that relevance and utility to today’s curriculum as demonstrated by active teaching strategies and student assignments is more important than the “classic” status of an unused work, to our faculty.

My library is one of nearly 100 libraries at the University of Oxford, and my aim is to ensure that we target our modest financial and space resources into providing a circulating collection of items on reading lists.  The faculty and departmental libraries are the place to go for more obscure, less well-used and research-related items, and yet I still have a tough time trying to reassure academics that if we weed the item from St Hugh’s College Library, the students will still be able to access it at the Bodleian.

I love the comment on Jenica’s post by Jason

In the case of weeding, our Dean said, very politely, to the faculty: “These books are not being used, and have not been used in 20 years. There are two possibilities… either students can’t find the things they need (in which case weeding makes good content more findable) OR teaching faculty aren’t teaching to a curriculum that includes the books you want to keep. We are dealing with the half of that equation we control.”


Keep fighting the good fight, y’all.

Israel and library technology

Lots of library-related technology such as remote access was developed in Israel.  Because Israel was politically isolated from many of its neighbouring countries, it could not develop inter-library loans systems such as we are used to in the UK and other countries.  This meant that there was an urgent need to develop other ways of sharing information resources with other institutions worldwide.  As a result, many library technology companies such as Ex Libris started life in Israel and are still based there today.