Category Archives: libraries

libraries & archives & museums

how the personal became political

How I Became a Freedom Fighter — A story in two parts:

Part 1: As a teenager in the 80s, I knew libraries were pretty cool. I used them to pursue various odd interests too embarrassing to blog (e.g., the various sequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel). When things were unspeakably tough for me at home, libraries were a refuge. When my friend’s parents burned her science fiction and fantasy out of fears of ‘satanism’, and forbade her to read anything not assigned by church or school, libraries were more than a refuge: they saved her sanity. When I read in history and newspapers alike about librarians or the American Library Association standing up against would-be book-burners or book-banners, librarians seemed actually heroic as well as sane: Defenders of Freedom! Purveyors of Knowledge! Keepers of the Light! And so on.

Gentle Reader, I became a Librarian, and eventually an Internet Evangelist. Libraries and librarians are an obvious and unqualified good: they provide access to information. They let people make their own choices. I started using email and bulletin boards as a student in the late 80s, and was thrilled by these new communication technologies. As a librarian in the 90s it was obvious that what we now call the Internet was a tremendous multiplier: people would ultimately be able to access anything, but more than that, they would be able to publish anything. Democracy! Printing Presses! Gutenberg! Revolution! The Ultimate Fulfillment of Human Potential! And so on.

Part 2: In the late 90s, I was a tech educator & librarian, in San Francisco. I ran an educational center at the Exploratorium, one of the coolest museums ever, dedicated to letting people learn how to learn. I was all about experiential learning. Plus I got to play with a lot of cool media technology.

Unfortunately, it seemed that despite the best efforts of librarians, Human Potential hadn’t been quite fulfilled yet. The censorware wars were raging as states and universities and localities tried to ‘protect’ their citizens and employees from information. Congress passed the Telecommunications Reform Act in 1996, simultaneously banning ‘indecent’ communications and lowering media ownership limits — the sole nod toward Human Potential in that benighted legislation was the establishment of the E-Rate program to pass some money to libraries and schools for Internet access. Two years later Congress passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act (aka the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) and the wretched Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Watching all this legal and political maneuvering with frustration, I was increasingly interested in the details of the seemingly arbitrary rules, and how the grand principles were oftentimes frustrated by those details. So I applied to law school, and was thrilled to be accepted at Boalt — at that time, the only law school that really did public interest IP. I knew of Professor Pam Samuelson’s work, and found out that she had just endowed a law clinic to work on issues of law, technology & public policy — I couldn’t be happier. So I went to law school, and worked on a bunch of cool projects before and since. With any luck, I’ll keep on figuring out ways to get by in the world, using my skills & knowledge, and trying to be a net positive. Pretty much what most people do, I guess.

On my best days, I love people. As a species we’re just unbelievably brilliant. We’re good at talking & thinking. We’re so good at it, in fact, that we constantly devise new ways to do it, better and more efficiently and more often and in different funky ways and over different media. From art to science to household gossip, it’s all about us communicating to each other, using movement, sound, vision; different languages for different messages in different media. Speaking, writing, printing, broadcasting, blogging: using every sense and every force of nature we shape the world around us, just to talk to one another. “Information wants to be free” is a canard. Information has no wants or desires. People want information to be free. It seems to be human nature — maybe animal nature, maybe the nature of all life — to communicate, to communicate freely.

It’s probably only natural that some would feel threatened by this human urge to communicate, and others would see it as a potential resource for exploitation. Any force of nature can be dammed for profit or the pleasures of control. Hundreds of years ago, the efforts of governments to control printing presses led to copyright statutes and sedition laws. And in response, people said No! We want to increase and share information, and in this country these revolutionaries devised the First Amendment and assigned copyrights to Authors, not printers.

Today, the struggles continue: governments pass laws regulating speech, punish people for sharing information, and hand the control of information to media corporations. And in response, 15 years ago, some people got together and formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The staff at EFF work to protect our rights to talk, to listen, and to share information using the tremendous power of communications technology. Because of their labors, in part, people have more opportunities to stand up and speak, write, print, broadcast, and blog. So happy 15th birthday, EFF. May there be many more.

Et tu, Louisiana?

Not content with their shared top-ten ranking in teen births, Louisiana State Rep. A. G. Crowe (R-Slidell) wants Louisiana to join with Oklahoma and Alabama in segregating (or banning) gay books.

Good for you, Rep. Crowe. You tackle those problems that Louisiana is facing (high cancer mortality rates, high teen pregnancy rate, low education rates, high infant mortality rate) by, umm, micro-managing library collections. Let me know how that works out.

ip/tech news & really stupid & annoying republicans

  • wiretaps increased last year: Wiretaps in U.S. Jump 19 Percent in 2004 [sfgate 4/28] i’m pondering whether the wiretappers’ efficiency also increased? can they scan information more quickly now? did governments take cops off the streets to put them in surveillance vans? or did the governments hire a bunch of new wiretappers? hmm, all sorts of interesting new questions. SFGate says the investigators pursued “drug and other cases.” Where are the much-vaunted terrorists against whom the PATRIOT Act wiretap expansions were supposed to be used? The non-terrorist taps increased 28%, which means the terrorist-related taps increased, well, very approximately, by 10%? One final editorial comment: These are actual wiretaps. Approved by the courts. Nobody bothers to cite the numbers of wiretaps denied by the courts. Why? Because courts always, always say yes. Thank god for that impartial third branch protecting us from the tyranny of the executive.
  • european libraries kick-start their own digitization campaigns. [DW 2005/4/27] Excellent. How many years has it been since Michael Hart started project gutenberg? followed by numerous small-scale digitizing projects at individual libraries & museums? I guess PG didn’t quite pose sufficient “risk of a crushing American domination in the definition of how future generations conceive the world.” Well, if it took google to kick-start the digitization of the world, I can only say hurrah, what took you all so long?
  • the criminalization of copyright continues apace. [sigh]
  • what was DeLay’s beef with Kennedy doing his own research on the Internet, anyway? doesn’t DeLay have enough to keep him busy? DeLay is really trying hard to compete for the title Chief Dumbass.

    “Absolutely. We’ve got Justice Kennedy writing decisions based upon international law, not the Constitution of the United States? That’s just outrageous,” DeLay told Fox News Radio. “And not only that, but he said in session that he does his own research on the Internet? That is just incredibly outrageous.”

    seattle times 4/20 linked from politechbot.

  • also in the running for Chief Dumbass, Sen. Rick Santorum. In this episode, however, Santorum isn’t so much a Dumbass as he is, well, really annoying. Santorum complains that the National Weather Service is giving away its data for free, and introduces a bill to stop that dastardly practice. I guess under his model we could write scripts that generate FOIA requests for weather data. Or does he think the data should be classified? Or maybe the government shouldn’t be gathering it at all? That must be it, because then we wouldn’t have to track that pesky global climate change. It really reminds me of the old Census story: One citizen responded to on their Census form, “You can find all this in your almanac, and then you wouldn’t have to take the Census.” Anyway … the folks at the carpetbagger report explain the donations & big business constituents behind this bit of annoying arrogance & stupidity. Why are Pennsylvanians tolerating this fool?

some observations about library architecture

The 10th anniversary of SF MOMA prompted an article in SFGate today [1/13] about MOMA’s architectural values, functionality as an art museum, and fitness into the SOMA neighborhood. I particularly liked the opening observation:

A big problem with architectural criticism is that buildings often are treated as if they are inert works of art, sculptures on a grand scale. The day they’re unveiled is the day they’re best judged.

In fact, even the most meticulous creation is a work in progress that reveals itself over time and is defined in part by its surroundings[.]

This is a common problem with library architectural projects, which too often result in designs of grand buildings that are architectural plums, but are not well-suited for their function as a library. The designers and library committees treat the library building as an inert work of art rather than as a functional building. They do beautifully on opening day and arouse many oohs and ahhs but over time the staff and patrons are forced to live with and adapt to features that are essentially library-unfriendly.

For instance, my pet peeve in modern library architecture is the giant atrium. So many public libraries do as SF Public Library (late 90s) has done — create a large atrium running up & down the center of the building. They make a lovely space for civic entertainments but the big open space is not functional for a library — not for creating reading / study space, not for archiving books, not for providing access to information. It wastes energy, creates a draft, carries sound, and while it’s entertaining sometimes for people on the top floors to people-watch, it invariably renders the first floor under the atrium inhospitable and useful only as a passageway. Huntsville, Alabama’s public library (mid-80s) did likewise, but in a smaller library the sins are proportionally more minor. Chicago Public Library‘s giant new downtown main branch (early 90s) managed to take the cold feel of the atrium and extend it even to its non-atrium spaces.

The SF MOMA article author, John King, also rants about SF MOMA’s atrium. I’m even more uninformed about museum architecture criticism than library architecture criticism — I’m not even a Power User of museums — but it seems to me that while the functionality of the museum as warehouse-for-art [or whatever] might pose a similar problem, the overall function of the museum as an artpiece in itself might make the atrium more justifiable in the museum context than in the library context. This is not to say that libraries shouldn’t be works of art in themselves; they should; but the art should flow with the functionality, not against it. It may be that atria in art museums flows with that functionality in a way that it doesn’t flow with the functionality of libraries.

Some cities of course get their library architecture right. Berkeley Public Library (Berkeley, CA) rehabbed its downtown library, retaining the lovely exterior. There is an atrium, but for only three floors, it’s tolerable, and better done than San Francisco, still allowing the library to retain some warmth. [Berkeley Public also has one of my favorite branch libraries, the North Branch, which has an exceptionally warm and friendly design.]

Boston Public Library married its beautiful, historic old facility to a modern new facility (90s?). While the new facility isn’t beautiful,* and has, yes, the dreaded atrium, the BPL atrium is reasonably functional, or at least, minimally disruptive. The atrium itself is relatively small. And in a city like Boston, the front area/entryway necessarily becomes a passageway rather than a habitable space, because of the drafts and chills thru much of the year. So the passage-ness of the space is less wasteful than it might otherwise be. More importantly, by coupling the old facility with the new facility, BPL managed to marry form to function. The old library now contains reading rooms and research and reference collections. You can appreciate the historical architecture and design elements while working at the slower pace that the functions designate. On the other hand, the new addition contains the higher-traffic programs — the circulating collections and the lively programs (children’s, literacy, friends of the library). On a minor technical note, BPL didn’t succeed in matching floor heights between the old and new sections — hardly any project does — but it’s certainly not as bad as at some libraries I’ve often used [University of Kentucky main library in the early 1990s; University of Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, Library in the early 2000s, with its North Addition].

The new Seattle Public Library (2004), from what I’ve heard, has some interesting features that attempt to break new ground in librariness — for instance, the book stacks on the inclining ramps. Over time we’ll see how library/user-friendly and workable these features really are.


* I may just be prejudiced against 20th century architecture, which is just so extraordinarily bleak and geometric and barren of fun design elements. The designers did a few nice things — I like the curvey arches at the entrance, and while it’s a bit warehouse-like, it’s an elegant warehouse. Some photos.