Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 14: December 2005


Following Up

Mea Culpa

First, a correction—but this isn’t the mea culpa. Those who downloaded the Mid-Fall issue on the first day may have received an incorrect URL for Jeremy Frumkin’s The digital librarian. The correct url is http://digitallibrarian.org. The whole issue now has the correct URL. The HTML separate for “Library futures, media futures” has explicit links to two posts from that blog that I quote from and comment on. Those two posts are at http://digitallibrarian.org/?p=92 (“5 years?”) and http://digitallibrarian.org/?p=95 (“Follow-up on 5 years”) respectively.

Mea Culpa: Analogies, Gatekeepers and Blogging

After that Net Media Perspective appeared (C&I 5:12, November 2005), two of the people whose thoughts contributed to the essay had more to say about it in posts on their own blogs (Civilities and Infothought) and in email. I questioned the existence of gatekeepers within net media—whether so-called A-list bloggers control the topics being discussed within the blogosphere. I specifically doubted that such superior voices exist in the biblioblogosphere, our little corner of the blogging universe.

Jon Garfunkel (Civilities, civilities.net) posted “The new gatekeepers: The corrections” on October 17. He clarifies three items covered in my critiques:

Ø    Garfunkel admits that “Garfunkel’s hypothesis” (“People who blog have a much greater tendency to pass along incomplete quick impressions than balanced analyses written later, by a ratio of greater than seven to one”) is weak and one datapoint he used (the Wendy’s chili incident) is particularly weak. He rewords the hypothesis: “[P]eople are stubborn to let go of first impressions, and…the blogosphere as it is architected today does not work to counter mistaken first impressions.” I agree with Garfunkel’s reworded hypothesis—it’s true (in my experience) and unfortunate.

Ø    I took exception to Garfunkel’s description of the role of the “new gatekeepers”: “The new gatekeepers do so by manipulating information cascades.” The refined version: “Manipulating is too strong a word. What I meant was: If we fear that the old gatekeepers can be restricting information, then we should also have reason to fear that the new gatekeepers can be amplifying selective information.” There’s a difference between “amplifying” and “manipulating”—and again, I agree with the refined version. I’ve seen enough cases even within the biblioblogosphere to recognize that those with established voices can amplify ideas and information more effectively than other bloggers.

Ø    Garfunkel wrote, “The system rewards good writers and editors, who now are getting introduced to the better writers.” I opined that this was a good thing—that good writing and editing should be rewarded. He now says that was “the opposite point of what I wanted to make.” His point was “the system rewards the stars.” That is a different point, and it’s hard to argue against. Net media and the blogosphere haven’t undermined the deep truth of the lyric, “Them that’s got shall get.”

In case it isn’t obvious, I regard Garfunkel’s work at Civilities as interesting and important. Otherwise, I would not spend so much time critiquing it.

Seth Finkelstein (Infothought, sethf.com/infothought/blog/) posted “Cites & Insights November 2005” on October 14, pointing out cases in which yes/no decisions within net media keep people from being widely heard who should be widely heard—just as similar decisions keep voices out of traditional media. (I’m phrasing this badly; go read his post.) He emailed me questioning my A-list skepticism:

[T]he word “controlling” might be a little misleading, in that of course it’s not absolute—but that shouldn’t be used to deny an effect…Every group has its influential leaders, who can often (not always, but often) make an issue prominent or marginalize it. Why should library issues be an exception?

After another exchange, Seth did a terrible thing: He convinced me I was wrong. Discussing an example he raised (the rumor that ACLU was mounting an “as-applied” challenge to CIPA in Rhode Island) I noted the likely source of the rumor, one of three or four library bloggers who have much larger readership than the rest of us. I noted that this blogger “doesn’t set the tone of most biblioblogosphere conversations; neither does [another of that group]. In a lot of areas, I have as much ‘power’ as they do—but certainly not primarily from Walt at Random.”

I was denying the significance of the A-list as gatekeepers by pointing out that I’m not part of the library A-list but nonetheless pretty good at making my voice heard. To which Seth responded, “Of course not (‘primarily from Walt at Random’). You’re a well-known writer and columnist in the field… That’s the source of your power. Similarly, there are blogs that are very highly ranked generally because of the author’s ‘rock star’ status, not particularly because of what he or she writes on the blog. Some people have influential and/or widely-read blogs because they are (local) celebrities, and some people are (local) celebrities because they have influential and/or widely-read blogs. Cause and effect varies.”

I finally realized that I’m not in a position to deny the possibility that there are gatekeepers (of a sort) in the biblioblogosphere—because I also have an established voice. As I said in a reply, once this sunk in to my thick skull, “For a ‘gatekeeper’ to deny the existence of gatekeepers isn’t quite oxymoronic, but…” Indeed, as Finkelstein responded, such denial is “standard blog evangelism.”

I’m hardly a blog evangelist, but otherwise the shoe fits pretty well. Thus this mea culpa. I failed to think through the process by which I denied the existence of “controlling” or amplifying voices within the biblioblogosphere. I knew I couldn’t legitimately deny that existence if I was one of the amplifying voices. I wrongly assumed that I was not one of those voices simply on the basis that my blog is young, doesn’t have very much readership, and doesn’t usually address library issues directly.

Once you see Walt at random as part of “Walt’s voice,” which is also carried in Cites & Insights, the print columns I still do, the cumulative effect of the articles, columns, speeches and books I’ve done in the past, and my participation in lists, LISNews, and the like…well, the denial looks a little silly.

I continue to believe that it’s easier for new voices to become major voices in the library field and the biblioblogosphere than it is in many other fields. But I’m the wrong person to make that claim: After all, I’ve been working on it for two decades. Mea culpa.

Other notes

Mark Lindner of …the thoughts are broken… has an October 16 post about the same essay. Lindner considers two of my questions: Do you believe the most widely read library bloggers act as gatekeepers? Do you really want to know what some array of strangers concluded about an article—or do you want to be guided by a handful of “trusted strangers”?

His answer to the second is straightforward: “I would much prefer the latter. I want to know what people with whom I have some context, and possibly some contact, think and value. I could care less what the hoi polloi think…” The first one’s tougher and his long, thoughtful answer deserves to be read in context and in full. Briefly, he’s finding he gets more out of the folks who aren’t read as widely—and that he’s not interested in short posts that link to other items and don’t say much on their own—but that’s just a bit of what he has to say, all of it worth reading.

Angel, The Gypsy librarian, posted “On gatekeeping and other questions” on October 17, a post inspired by Lindner’s post. He also likes blogs that say something and notes that some “widely read” blogs in most fields become “link collections.” He offers a couple of thoughts worth quoting (in a post worth reading on its own): “It is the ability to roam and wander as one pleases that makes blogging what it is. Expectations, like bets, are off. Having said that, what I will say next may sound quaint, old fashioned, or even idealistic… If you have a gift, a power, an ability, you should make the best use of it…”

I’m always pleased and surprised when my essays inspire other essays. Lindner and Angel both took the discussion in interesting directions that gave me new food for thought. I’m grateful.

Other Items

Fiona Bradley (explodedlibrary) noted my notes on her comments on the “investigation” of the biblioblogosphere (yes, it’s a “tongue-twister of a term,” but I think we’re stuck with it) in a September 7 post. The more I think about it, I don’t call her response to the survey negative. Carefully critical, but not negative. She correctly says my informal study was flawed and offers the compliment that it was “a very good, albeit flawed…first step” in the direction of study and analysis of library blogging. Her final paragraph, which I’ll keep in mind when I do the next round:

I think that both objective and subjective measures have their uses, but personally (not professionally), I am more interested in the subjective and tend to be skeptical of numbers. If other people prefer more objective bibliometric measures, I can understand that. I just hope that they are aware (as I think Walt is) that most objective measures usually contain subjective elements as well.

I do find quantifiable measures to be interesting (and I don’t choose to offer my subjective evaluation of a bunch of library blogs; I get in enough trouble as is!). The selection of such measures is inherently subjective. The first time around, I was careful to state exactly what measures I was using. Next time, I’ll do that again and possibly offer some rationale as to my choice of measures (and the shortcuts needed to make the investigation feasible).

Several people based blog entries on “Library futures, media futures.” Alane at It’s all good offers notes on Jerry Kline’s speech at the Charleston Conference (which I missed this year, sadly), in which he suggests that libraries need to buy more physical books—libraries get more credit for books on the shelf than they do for digital resources. (That’s a third-hand paraphrase; as Dorothea would say, “caveat lector.”) She notes of my piece: “This sentence sums up the long piece for me: ‘I don’t believe our future (the future of anyone reading this essay in 2005) is solely digital and I don’t see any evidence to support such a massive change.’” If you note the key word “solely,” I see no reason to weaken that statement.

Dorothea Salo questions my support for the “book brand” in a November 2 Caveat lector post. I mention that most public library surveys show people want books. She wants followup questions “interrogating the importance of books in the respondents’ lives.” There’s more to the post but I have to grump about her comment, “Until we know, I wouldn’t stand pat on the book brand.” I explicitly say the book brand is “a great basis to build on”—not something to “stand pat on.” Of course public libraries should embellish their brand: the great third place, a source of trusted information, a commons for licensed digital resources, and so on. But “What’s wrong with starting from a basis of ‘the place where you can borrow books for free’?” (Salo thinks that a lot of those who want libraries to have books don’t actually use books much; I have to say that my anecdotal experience in my own public library and others I’ve visited says lots of people use lots of books—enough so that most library referenda still pass.)

Finally, Luke Rosenberger poked at the Kaiser Family Foundation “Generation M” study in a November 14 post at lbr.library-blogs. He found some carelessness in the questions asked, leading him to wonder whether all the reported reading is print reading. Is it likely that young people (ages 8-18) interpret “Reading for fun (books, magazines, etc.)” as meaning something other than print reading, particularly given other choices such as “visiting websites” and “other computer activities”? If I was reading an article online that originally appeared in a magazine or newspaper, I’d regard that as “visiting a website” or some “other computer activity,” not as “reading for fun (books, magazines, etc.)” but of course I’m a long way from ages 8-18. Go read Rosenberger’s thoughtful post; maybe he’s right.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 14, Whole Issue 70, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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