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Archive for May, 2010

I’m gonna be a celebrity/That means someone everyone knows

They’re gonna recognize my eyes, my hair, my teeth, my boobs, my nose

–Roxie Hart, “Chicago”

This is the video of a monologue late night talk show host, Craig Ferguson, gave in 2007. In it, he talks about why he will no longer make fun of Britney Spears or other easy-to-mock celebrities. His point is that comedy and comedians should make fun of the rich and powerful, not those people who are having drug, alcohol, or mental health issues in the public eye.

I’ve become a fan of Craig Ferguson is because of thoughtful moments like this. One of the things that occurred to me watching this video is how little we’ve come to regard celebrities as real people. Yes, yes, we’ve all read the little screeds in various magazines where movie stars and singing sensations will claim that in spite of their fabulous wardrobes and mountains of cash, they really enjoy the simple things in life. The moral of these little write-ups is these beautiful people are just like the rest of us.

At best, that’s a half truth. Seriously, the rich and well-known are leading the kind of lives most of us will never know and never have an opportunity to know. So it’s easy to dehumanize them, to not treat them as real human beings in need of help. In his monologue, Craig talks about his own struggles with alcohol and drugs. Left unspoken is the question that if he had the same degree of fame he has now and been  subjected then to the same widespread ridicule that celebrities face now at the lowest point in his life, would he have survived? Indeed, would any of us survive being mocked by complete strangers across the nation?

Once upon a time, it was difficult to become a celebrity. You had to make a real effort to become “someone everyone knows”. Usually, that celebrity was job-related–you became an actor, for example, signed a contract with a movie studio, and, during the course of promoting your work, the studio made it a point to plaster your likeness across every newspaper and movie magazine. Now, thanks to the magic of the Intertube, any Joe Citizen, wittingly or unwittingly, can wind up with their image featured across the Net. Think about it. There you are doing the “Hokey Pokey” at your cousin’s wedding. Somebody films it on their camera phone and posts the video on YouTube. Sure, it might just get a few hits and no harm done, but it might also go viral across the Web. The next thing you know comedians are cracking jokes about the video on late night talk shows and reporters are calling you up to ask for comment.

Is this democratization of celebrity necessarily a bad thing, you ask? Okay, for every embarassing home video out there, there are people using the Net to share their talents, passions, energy (and possibly, the “Hokey Pokey”) with the wider world. I don’t deny the Internet’s ability to empower talented citizens, but at the same time, I’m concerned about the blurring of the lines between public and private figures.

At some point, do all of us become public figures whether we want to be or not?

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I was reading author Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed which directed me to The Hypothetical Library, a blog written by Charlie Orr.  Charlie designs book jackets for hypothethical books by real authors and then features them in his blog. When Charlie asked Neil for his hypothetical book, Neil responded by saying that it would have to be a book about things that he would never write–a book full of such forbidden knowledge that to read it would bring about the end of the world. [Note: be sure to read the comments on that post as they are hysterical].

The implied presence of such a book immediately got me thinking. A specialized library like this–especially one that housed potentially dangerous volumes–would need a very specialized group of librarians to look after the collection. In fact, you would need *dramatic pause here* NINJA LIBRARIANS OF THE APOCALYPSE!

Of course, there are many kinds of Ninja Librarians out there, so much so that they have formed their own league as you can see:

Most Ninja Librarians using their ancient art of Information-Fu to help patrons find what they need:

Ninja Librarians of the Apocalypse, however, are charged with keeping problem patrons–Elder Gods, Younger Gods, American Gods, Demons, Shapeshifters, Eldritch Creatures, Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, Indiana Jones, Nazis in search of the occult, etc. –from accessing Information Man Was Not Meant to Know, thus rending the fabric of Time and Space asunder and bringing about the End of the World.

Here we see a Ninja Librarian dispatching a disciple of Cthulu. Disciples of Cthulu are noted for their annoying cell phone habits.

Of course, what would a secret society of skilled librarian ninjas be without their own theme song?

Some of you may be wondering about that hulking fellow center stage.  The artwork depicts the Dark Lord Sauron demanding to know who has his Ring of Power. Ninja Librarians are ever vigilant about patron privacy so we had to refuse his request.

Yes, Ninja librarianship is a high risk profession, but as Mr. Spock points out, every occupation has its little draw-backs and sometimes those draw-backs have sharp, pointy spears.

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Robert Redford in “The Horse Whisperer.”

And the award for “Librarianship Above and Beyond the Call of Duty” goes to my colleague, Rose, who successfully averted the nuclear  meltdown of one of our more “labor-intensive” grad student researchers. It happened like this.

Said grad student–let’s call him “Chip”–was working hard to put the finishing touches on his master’s thesis before the looming graduation deadline. Generally speaking, it’s a real pleasure for library staffers to work with master’s and doctoral degree students. There’s a special thrill you get when researchers that you’ve helped break new ground, bringing to light things that have been saved, but forgotten and revealing them anew to a wider audience. Their projects are usually interesting, they don’t need a lot of hand-holding and they are typically grateful for our help.

And then there are guys like Chip. Chip, named after the chip he carried around on his shoulder, wasn’t a bad guy, but he was one of those fellows who goes around creating his own problems.  From the get-go, he needed a lot of hand-holding and we bent over backwards to help him out.

Chip’s problems really weren’t that different from any other grad student, but he made things worse for himself by treating the tedious hoop-jumping that’s part and parcel of the graduate school experience as a personal conspiracy against him. Why were there all these requirements? Why was he being oppressed? The university was an oppressor!

It’s true that University of Arnor has a well developed bureaucracy and that bureaucracy can be quite oppressive, but the red tape lash falls equally on the backs of the faculty and staff as well as the other grad students. Chip was being treated just like everyone else, but he didn’t seem to get that.

On the particular day that Rose earned her Merit Badge, his thesis advisor (and my boss), Bill, had asked Chip to make some minor editorial changes on his thesis. Among other things, Bill wanted Chip to add the accession numbers of the interviews Chip had used to his citation list and to make sure that he had signed permissions for an unreleased interview he wanted to use. Modest and usual requirements and, in the case of the release, something that should have been done a year ago, but instead of buckling down and making the necessary changes, Chip developed China Syndrome. His e-mails to Bill and me went from whinging to downright insulting. We were both ready to clout him ’round the ears with the MLA Style Manual and feed him into the paper shredder.

Luckily for him, Chip picked up the phone, called our colleague Rose, and wailed out his tale of woe. Rose took the time to calm Chip down, shared stories of  her own grad school struggles with him, deduced that he had completely misunderstood what Bill was asking, got him the paperwork he needed to fill out, poured oil on troubled waters, and in general set his feet once more on the path of righteousness. Once Rose had talked him in off the metaphoric ledge, Chip was embarrassed by his bad behavior and apologized to both Bill and myself.

Chip successfully defended his master’s thesis–an excellent piece of work, by the way–and was profuse in his gratitude to Rose and the rest of the staff.  He’ll be marching with the rest of the students at this year’s graduation and it’s due to Rose.

Rose would tell you that she didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Was any of that street corner counseling part of Rose’s job description? No, it wasn’t, but she did it anyway because that’s the kind of caring professional she is. She’s an archivist who’s willing to go the extra mile to make sure that Arnorian students succeed. The university ought to give her a medal, but they won’t so I’m giving her one now.

Roz, we who are mere gladiators in great information arena, salute you!

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“Half a tick, Mr. Holmes. Ye can’t go walkin’ into someone’s residence, pokin’ about their personal possessions, disruptin’ their privacy… That’s for Scotland Yard.” –Inspector Lestrade, “Without a Clue”

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is promoting “Choose Privacy Week” and as part of that they have put together the following video featuring writers Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow among others.

As a librarian, one of the things that I find frustrating about discussing the importance of privacy with young people is their belief that they will never be on the business end of an inquiry or investigation by the duly designated authorities.  If you talk about privacy with young people, especially when you talk about the importance of not putting personal information on-line, you generally get a shrug and response along the lines of “don’t care who knows that”.

The truth, of course, is that when that information is taken down and used against them, they will care–very much so. Case in point: about a year or so ago, my tween-age niece wound up in the principal’s office at her middle school. Why? It seems that she and a couple of her girlfriends had been horsing around in the girl’s locker room and one of her friends had taken a couple of pictures of them in their skivvies with the friend’s cell phone. That friend had passed the “knicker pikkers” in question onto another one of her friends who had wound up showing it to some boys.  The fact that the knicker pikkers were seen by members of the opposite sex meant that the school’s sexting–texting or sending others messages with a sexual content–policy had been violated which was why my niece wound up in the principal’s office with her girlfriends. She hadn’t taken or distributed the photos, but she had posed for them and was thus considered equally guilty in the eyes of the school administration.

My niece didn’t think she was doing anything wrong or anything that someone else might consider wrong. After all, cellphones are common and it’s acceptable to take pictures with them in all sorts of situations and to send those photos to your friends. She didn’t have the experience to understand how putting private information onto a public networking device like a cellphone could come back to haunt her.

In her father’s and my day, of course, such a situation wouldn’t have arisen. No one brought their camera to school unless it was a special occasion. And even if one of the girls had brought a camera into the gym locker room, the rest of us would have raised a ruckus. I could rant about the moral decline of modern youth, but the fact is that portable technology and the spread of social media are treated differently by different generations.

At the Arnorian Library Association conference I attend a couple of months ago, one of the presenters was a paralegal who worked with a large Midwestern law firm. Part of her job was to research the on-line presence of the plaintiffs in various cases.  She would seek out whatever obvious web presence they had (blogs, websites, Facebook pages, etc.) and then using what she gleaned there about their screen names (Twitter user names, for example) she would then proceed to hunt for their other postings.

I was surprised to discover that any comment made to someone’s blog, for example, is actually searchable. In a way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise–after all, comments are usually viewable by the public. It stands to reason that if you can search for a blog post, you should be able to search for the comments to that post, but it was a shock, all the same.  I think twice now before commenting on blog posts now and if I do comment, I make it a point to post under a pseudonym wherever possible.

Now someone out there is bound to argue that I’m simply kidding myself, trying to preserve my privacy on-line. After all, a truly motivated investigator could learn a great deal about me, my profession, my likes and dislikes just from perusing the information I’ve chosen to share with the public on this blog and my Flickr account. One fellow librarian I know of made the choice to blog under his own name on the basis that if he wrote it, he should be responsible for it. I applaud his gutsiness and yet at the same time I cherish the thin veil of privacy that blogging under a “handle” affords me.

Jessamyn West, who was also a presenter at the 2010 conference, pointed out that cellphones, among many other high tech devices,  are set up to give out their geographic location and attach that location to any photo taken with it. So if you unwisely post a nekkid photo of yourself up onto a website that accepts those kind of photos, you are essentially giving out your home address to any scary stranger who wants to look you up in person.

It’s that sort of hidden technological spying that I think provides the greatest threat to our privacy in the 21st century. My take away from West’s presentation was that it’s not enough to just use the technology or the software that’s provided to us without fully understanding it. We must educate ourselves about HOW applications and technology work in order to properly evaluate how much private information we may be inadvertantly providing to the public.

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