Intellectual: Pictures and public libraries

I am used to writing papers, and while I was still pursuing my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, I did a fair bit of quantitative research. I even think my name is buried deep in the recesses of a published paper on the removal of arsenic from drinking water. Then, when I switched my major to Creative Writing, I spent the majority of my days reading literary theory and thinking the kind of big, grandiose thoughts that only undergraduate English and philosophy majors can be pretentious enough to have. One of the things that appealed to me about the MLIS degree was its practical nature, and I didn't think that I would end up doing any kind of research or trying to make any weird theoretical leaps while I was completing it. Yet I managed to fit both of those things in to my experience at the iSchool.

I took LIS 540: Information Systems, Architecture and Retrieval in the autumn of 2007. Even before the class started, I was excited. I like everything about information systems, and I get excited about them in a very nerdy way. But when I finally took a look at the class website, and I saw the final assignment, my enthusiasm stopped cold. The assignment that I beheld was the most vague, irritating, and ridiculous assignment I had ever seen in my life: Write an essay with one of three titles: "Information is real," "Information is perceptual," or "Information is art," and back it up. That was it. The nebulous nature of the assignment really annoyed me, and to my further chagrin, I could not stop thinking about it.

As the semester wore on, my annoyance lessened, and I started to enjoy the class a little bit. One day, towards the middle of the semester, something in my head clicked. I had just finished one of my huge and exhausting metadata cleanups at work, and I was wondering why many of my company's keyword searches just didn't work right. I suddenly remembered a snippet of literary theory that I had learned in my intro to literary theory class, a theory by a linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure. This nineteenth-century Swiss man had theorized that words (signifiers) and their meanings (signified) were not one unit, but were two inexplicably linked entities. For example, the word "boat" and an actual boat are not the same thing. But the fact that we associate the thing with the word and thus derive meaning is incredibly significant. All at once, it made sense to me. Information was perceptual; our keywords were misrepresenting what was actually important about our images and what would be meaningful for clients. I had my paper, and it now sticks out in my memory as the most significant piece of traditionally academic thought that I did at the iSchool.

That next spring semester, when I was looking for things to fill up my schedule after I lost my job, I ran across a posting to one of the iSchool listservs looking for bloggers to write for a research project run by Karen Fisher and Mike Crandall. I contacted them and discovered that they were looking for students to work on the U.S. Impact project. The goal of this project is to study the impact of free access to computers and the internet in public libraries. They were planning on doing several types of research, online and phone surveys, and in-depth case studies to get a holistic view of how free access in libraries really affects people's lives. They wanted to use the blog to create a bit of discussion in the community and to keep people updated on the progress of the project. Even though I didn't think I would end up working in a public library, I felt like I needed to stretch myself a little bit. So I signed on to work as a blogger for the summer semester.

As the project went forward, I started doing more than just blogging. I sat in on a class Karen was teaching that was preparing students to collect data from the first case study site. I still hadn't gotten a job, and I decided I had time to go along to the test site. All of my previous research experience had been strictly quantitative, so this holistic process of qualitative research was really interesting for me. We did interviews and focus groups with all sorts of people: patrons, staff, librarians, administrators, and community members. We visited other libraries and public access computing sites in the area. We refined the interview script and transcribed interviews. We built a community profile and wrote preliminary case studies. It was a really cool experience, and it revealed to me in a clear and direct way just how much libraries mean to the people I had the privilege of interviewing. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to be involved, even if I it was only for one semester, because I feel like it really did stretch my horizons.

Note: I cannot include the case study I wrote, as the research for the U.S. Impact project is ongoing.

© 2009 Elizabeth Bair