Bibliotheca Class, and Learning and Teaching at Harvard

I’m having a huge amount of fun teaching a class at the Harvard Graduate School of Design with my friend Jeffrey Schnapp on the history, present, and future of libraries, called Bibliotheca.  The students are fantastic: twenty or so, mostly studying design and architecture, though there are graduate students in other fields.  We’re holding the class in an open, spacious basement room of the GSD’s Loeb Library, thanks to our collaborator Ann Whiteside, the library’s director.  Ann and her team are thinking collaboratively and creatively about how to use library space.  Opening up this big room, laden with visual materials, to us as an active teaching space is just one example of that.

Today, class opened with one student showing the photos he’d taken of a tour of the Harvard Depository, a huge facility about 25 miles off campus to provide storage and now access to books that don’t fit on campus.  A group of students from our class, plus a few others who heard about the trip and hitched a ride, piled into a bus we rented and spent a day last week on a spontaneous field trip.  The crew wants to go back with a video-camera.  The idea is to produce something, as part of the class, that we can publish openly about what we’re learning.  The photos prompt a series of questions about the organization of physical materials that tie straight into where we’re going with the class later.  It was an impromptu start to the class, unplanned, but opened new avenue.

After reflections on the HD visit, we welcome David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder.  We’re talking about how the design of physical libraries and the design of virtual spaces for knowledge and information relate to one another.  The topics are free-ranging and deep, with David — he’s a ph.d. in philosophy by training — and the students pushing one another about the role of libraries, the need for librarians in the future, the timeline for coming to a largely digital experience v. our current hybrid experience, and so forth.

A few choice quotes from David W., plucked out of context: “I like the Library of Congress!” says David.  And: “we need a paper back-up: everyone realizes that.”  (But students push back: is the physical only important as a “back-up” to the digital?  And concerns about the stability of the digital as a format: does that argue in favor of the physical as a resource for redundancy, or as something that ought to be in the physical spaces that we call libraries.)  And, again from David: “there are huge values associated with local libraries.  I just don’t pretend know what the future of libraries is going to be.”

After David W. leaves us after the first two hours of class and we take a break, a group of students will present on their review of Louis Kahn’s iconic library at the Phillips Exeter Academy.  I know that library well, but only from the perspective of a learner: I spent many happy (and some stressed-out) hours there as a high school student.  I’m excited to hear what students of design make of it.  This is a design principle of the class: students work in teams, of their own forming, to present excavations of library design projects throughout the term and then develop a final project, also team-based, at the end of the semester.

What this class has me thinking this morning about is not just the substance — the future of libraries, the organization of knowledge, how we store and provide it and think about it — but also about the possibilities for teaching and learning.  Yesterday, Harvard announced a landmark new gift: $40 million to catalyze innovations in learning and teaching from Rita and Gustave Hauser.  If we have the chance to spend those resources, and ideally more, that it catalyzes from other donors, over the next decade to improve our learning and teaching, how might we go about that?  There are many, many worthy places to focus and many great things going on here at Harvard to build upon.

Technology should surely be part of that focus, but not the starting point.  In my view, the starting point should be our pedagogical goals, which vary by discipline.

What’s so rich about this experience for me (and perhaps for the students?) of this class is the chance to spend several hours a week with Jeffrey Schnapp and great students and library staff from Harvard and a broad array of guests who have meandered through our shared exploration.  Our guests have been great experts in the history and design of libraries, some from the Harvard faculty and others from elsewhere: Matthew Battles, Greg Nagy, Ann Blair, Katherine Park to name just some of those who have already been with us.  We’re tying our themes and our exploration into the reform of the Harvard Library system that we’re a few years into, and which has scared up a huge number of interesting problems that we can take up.  Several librarians are coming to all classes, and we’re opening up some classes to a much larger group of librarians.  It’s been great to learn from their perspectives and incredible knowledge.  The class feels porous and connected.

There are challenges with the Bibliotheca style of teaching.  It’s intense and time-consuming for the teachers; it has two faculty members involved, which means it is expensive on a per-student-unit-of-credit basis; it has great support and involvement from lots of community members who are volunteering their time; the students are (or seem) dug-in and helping to co-produce the class and its outputs.  It’s tied into hard problems that we face on our own campus, and might even help us solve (address, at least?) some of them.  But it’s a ton of fun and makes me so grateful to be at a place that supports, and even privileges, this kind of approach to teaching and learning.

(P.S.: BTW, David has a new book coming out in January: Too Big to Know.  I’ve pre-ordered it already; you should too!  Plus, I read a late-stage draft, and it’s totally wonderful, building out the Everything is Miscellaneous argument, and many other strands, in fascinating ways.)

Welcome back, Urs Gasser!

It is our great good fortune at the Berkman Center that Urs Gasser has returned, on a full-time basis, to be our new executive director. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to move us forward in our second decade. Urs has been a longtime fellow of the Center, but most recently has been living back home in Switzerland, where he has been a professor at the University of St. Gallen, one of our key research partners. Urs is committed to the highest standards in scholarship; the expansion of our collective minds through serious, collective inquiry; and to having fun in the process. In addition to his leadership and teaching skills, Urs is a wildly productive legal scholar in his own right, and no doubt will continue to contribute directly to what we know about the law as it relates to information and networks around the world. He has been a terrific co-author to work with on projects such as Born Digital, the book we wrote together over the past few years.

One of the great things about Urs taking this job is that he is focused on international collaboration and on interdisciplinary scholarship. These are important goals for the Center in its second decade. Urs has a particularly strong skill set in both of these regards and a commitment to proving that scholarship can be stronger when we work together across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

And personally, it’s just a joy to have him back with us full-time.

For more: listen to a podcast from Radio Berkman this week on Urs’s plans as executive director, as interviewed by David Weinberger. David has his own blogpost on Urs’s appointment here.

A Kick-Off for The Publius Project

This morning, at our 10th Anniversary celebration, we are talking about the future of politics and the Net. The notes I’ve prepared with my colleagues in advance of the session are here, on the conference wiki; have at them!) Before we start the real-space conversation, a quick pause to introduce a new project, called Publius.  (This post is more or less a cross-posting of my Preface to the Publius project.)

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We live in extraordinary times. For one billion of the six billion people on the planet, our lives are mediated by digital technologies. The way we use these technologies has a huge impact on many aspects of life in wired cultures around the world: how we do business, how we connect with one another, how we relate to institutions, how we participate in civic life, and so forth. Even in places where the Net barely reaches – places like Burma, North Korea, and Cuba – its influence is beginning to be felt. While individuals and groups have more autonomy and power in the networked age, so too do states and international bodies have new and different capacities to govern.

We use digital technologies in ways that are both constructive and disruptive. These technologies make it possible, for instance, for any citizen to speak her mind in a networked public sphere and to be heard by other people just about anywhere else in the world. While this freedom represents a revolution for human rights and democracy, it also makes the harm that her speech can cause much greater. Her speech might be defamatory; or it might be obscene, perhaps unfit for children to hear; or it might be disrespectful to the sovereign of a state far away from where she published it. That sovereign might want to keep anyone in his state from hearing her.

National and international disputes arise from everyday interactions online, like publishing text and video. Within states, people argue about how much to regulate interactions that are mediated by the Internet, like discussions in chat rooms, commercial transactions, and gambling. States are beginning to attack one another in the newly militarized zone of cyberspace. States fight over control of intellectual property that flows across national boundaries. Leaders get very exercised about the way that web site naming conventions and other technical protocols work and about the power of the institutions that manage them.

While the interactions between states and international bodies are paramount, their power knows limits online; their influence must occur alongside that of the companies, markets, and users that comprise the Net. The code and services offered by companies and the coordination provided by markets, have an enormous impact on how online life is governed—they create rules about what we can and cannot do. Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Net – netizens – ourselves are establishing norms that further govern our collective experience online. Groups form and disband quickly. Those that stick around can amass great capacity to include, empower, and exclude. The ability to govern activities online is not the exclusive province of the state, and the line between public and private action is getting blurrier, not clearer, as more of life moves into the networked public sphere.

The Net is in the midst of a constitutional moment that’s unusual, if not unique in world history. Our argument is that we are together participating in a series of constitutional moments, taking place all the time, all around the world. And unlike previous constitutional moments, such as the late eighteenth century in the United States, many more people have a means of shaping the outcome.

The Publius Project — launched as part of Berkman@10 — intends to draw out and record for posterity the diverse voices of those participating in these rolling constitutional moments. We are publishing the arguments of those who are exploring these many processes of decision-making and governance online. Our goal is to illuminate our collective experience and to provide a forum for strong points of view to emerge. We want to shine light on the nuances at the margins of decision-making online. We mean to encourage the Internet community to provoke one another, to inform ourselves, and to listen to others with different experiences. In the process, it’s our goal to help empower individuals, groups, companies, states, and international bodies to work together for the common good, especially as these constitutional moments come in wave after wave, breaking all around us.

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As a starting point, one might begin with David Weinberger’s argument in favor of Tacit Governance. Then swing over to some responses, from Esther Dyson, David Johnson, and Kevin Werbach.

The Web Difference Starts Up

I’ve got the great pleasure of co-teaching with David Weinberger this semester. It’s his triumphant return to the classroom after a few decades of taking time off from formal university teaching. The core inquiry of the course is to explore whether or not the web is in fact “different” from that which came before. Then, for the lawyers among us, we’re asking what difference those differences make in terms of law and policy. The conceit, and the syllabus, are brand-new, at least for us. It’s already fun, two days in.

Born Digital

For the past few years, Urs Gasser and I have been working on a book project together about a phenomenon that we have become obsessed with: how some young people, including our kids, use technologies in ways that are different that what we’ve seen before. The book is called Born Digital (Amazon seems not yet to know of Urs’ involvement; we’ll have to tell them). It’ll be out sometime in 2008, published by the good people at Basic Books.

(We decided to go with Basic Books because it is wonderful and we love the editors, and because they published the most important book in our field, Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and its sequel, Code 2.0. and other classics of the emerging digital literature, like The Cluetrain Manifesto.)

Our goals, among other things, in writing this book are to address and take seriously the concerns of parents and teachers and others perplexed by what’s going on; to highlight the wonderful things that some Digital Natives are up to; to make a series of policy arguments about what we ought to do about this phenomenon; and to set this issue in a global context — as part of the bigger story of globalization.

Two things prompt this blog-post: 1) to answer a persistent question we’ve been hearing from our friends and collaborators; and 2) to engage the assistance of anyone who wants to participate.

As with many overly-ambitious research projects, you start in one place and — you hope, I suppose — end up someplace a bit different that where you expected to get. That’s surely the case for us on this project.

So, first off, the issue. It’s a definitional issue, always an important starting point in a research project. We began this project interested in a distinction that others thought up and have pursued in various way: the difference between “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants.” (There’s an interesting short history, which we track, of the etymology of these terms, a subject for another day.)

We wanted to hone in on what it means to be a Digital Native and what the practices and lives of Digital Natives tell us about our society and about our future. One of the primary struggles we’ve faced is that these two terms alone — Digital Native and Digital Immigrant — are unsatisfactory on their own. They give rise to discomfort on several levels.

One, we’ve heard a few times that the term “Digital Native” carries with it connotations that are not all good, that it’s un-PC. That concern is worth acknowledging and talking through with anyone concerned about it, but given that we think it’s a wonderful thing in most ways to be a Digital Native (or, indeed, native to many other environments, like Boston, my hometown — “I am a Boston native” and am proud of it), I think that’s not a crisis.

The deeper discomfort comes from what is a little math problem:

– Not all people born during a certain period of history (say, after the advent of BBSes) are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way. For starters, only about 1 billion of the 6.7 billion people in the world have regular access to the supposedly “World Wide Web.” In other cases, young people we are meeting choose to have little to do with digital life.

– Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. The term “Digital Immigrant” doesn’t describe those people either — people like Urs and me, like our colleagues at the Berkman Center who are over a certain age — who live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.

We’ve been struggling hard with this problem. One of the benefits of “still writing” this book (we have a full draft, but are far from ready to go to print) and being in the throes of interviews and focus groups is that we are still working on getting it right.

We started out asking whether there is a straight “generational gap” between those Born Digital and those who were not. The point of our research, in the first instance, is to take up these terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant, and work them over. What I think we’ve found is that age is relevant, but not dispositive. What I think we are describing in our book is a set of traits — having to do with how people interact with information, with one another, and with institutions — that are more likely to be found in those Born Digital, but not certainly so. Many people Born Digital have some but not all of these traits. Many people who were not Born Digital — you (who read this blogpost) and me and Urs and perhaps most Berkmaniacs, to be sure — have these traits and more, more even than most Digital Natives. That’s essential to the puzzle of the book. There is a generational gap, but it’s not purely a generational gap. It’s more complicated.

So, here is a typology which we think emerges from what we’ve learned:

1) those who are Born Digital and also Live Digital = the *Digital Natives* we focus on in this book (to complicate things further: there is a spectrum of what it means to live digitally, with a series of factors to help define where a Digital Native falls on it);

2) those who are Born Digital (i.e., at a moment in history, today) and are *not* Living Digital (and are hence not Digital Natives);

3) those who are not Born Digital but Live Digital = us (for whom we do not have a satisfactory term; perhaps we need one — our colleague David Weinberger suggests “Digital Settlers”);

4) those who are not Born Digital, don’t Live Digital in any substantial way, but are finding their way in a digital world = Digital Immigrants; and,

5) those who weren’t Born Digital and don’t have anything to do with the digital world, whether by choice, reasons of access or cash, and so forth.

There may be more categories, but these are the essential ones. Our book focuses on the first — those Born Digital and who Live Digital lives.  Though it’s not the focus of this particular book, the third category is also deeply relevant to the narrative.

It may well be that there will prove to be a generational divide between those Born Digital and those not Born Digital. What we are focused on here, though, is the particular population — rather than the generation — of those who were both Born Digital and Live Digital, and what their lifestyles and habits and mores mean for the present and the future.

As it often the case, danah boyd says it better than I could in her talk at 4S earlier this fall:

“While I groan whenever the buzzword ‘digital native’ is jockeyed about, I also know that there is salience to this term. It is not a term that demarcates a generation, but a state of experience. The term is referencing those who understand that the world is networked, that cultures exist beyond geographical coordinates, and that mediating technologies allow cultures to flourish in new ways. Digital natives are not invested in ‘life on the screen’ or ‘going virtual’ but on using technology as an artifact that allows them to negotiate culture. In other words, a ‘digital native’ understands that there is no such thing as ‘going online’ but rather, what is important is the way in which people move between geographically-organized interactions and network-organized interactions. To them, it’s all about the networks, even if those networks have coherent geographical boundaries.”

What we seek to describe in this book is an emerging global culture of people relating to information, one another, and institutions in ways that, taken together, has great promise for the future of democracies. Digital Natives — people born digital — give us reason for hope that this global culture could emerge. Some of their behaviors also give reason to worry, at the same time, about things like privacy, safety, information overload, and IP worries. We need to take these problems seriously and get in front of them, without ruining the environment that makes all the wonderful things possible.

In this book, we argue in favor of greater connectivity. That connectivity might be between parents or teachers or lawmakers who don’t live any part of their lives online and our kids who do. That connectivity might be between those in industry who are threatened by what these kids and others (us) are up to online and the culture that we represent. That connectivity might be between technology companies and their users, whose identities they seek otherwise to control. That connectivity might be between those of us in the rich world and those in less rich parts of the world, as GV makes possible. And so forth.

That leads to the request for help, or at least invitation to participate. Our goal is to carry out much of this research and writing in a public way. To that end, we’ve got a wiki at where anyone can come and contribute. Much of what we’re reading and learning shows up on this wiki. We’d love to plug our work into the work of others, and learn from what others are learning.

We are lucky to have an amazing team of people at the Berkman Center and the Research Center on Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland working with us on this research, too, including the focus groups and interviews we’re conducting. Our work is coming along much better than it otherwise would with the able guidance and critiques of this team at our backs. We are lucky, too, to be able to read the work of many social scientists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, teachers, and others — people like Mimi Ito and our colleagues at the Berkman Center, danah boyd, Corinna di Gennaro, Shenja van der Graaf, and Miriam Simun — who understand aspects (or the whole) of the phenomenon we take up here far better than we do. We’d love to have your help, too, in working through these problems online.

There’s enormous promise in the Open Library project, which we’re hearing about today at Berkman’s lunch event from Aaron Swartz. The idea is wonderfully simple: to create a single web page per book. That web page can aggregate lots of data and metadata about each book. In turn, the database can be structured to indicate very interesting relationships between books, ideas, and people. The public presentation of the information is via a structured wiki.

I’m most interested in hearing what Open Library thinks it needs in the way of help. They have a cool demo here. It seems to me that one way to succeed in this project is to combine what start-ups call “business development” with what scholars do for a living with what non-profits think of as crowd-sourcing or encouraging user generated content or whatever. There’s a lot that could be done if the publishers and libraries contributed the core data (should be in everyone’s interest, long-term anyway); scholars need to opt in an do their part in an open way; Open Library needs to get the data structured and rendered right (curious as to whether OPML or other syndicated data structures are in play, or could be in play, here); and human beings need to contribute, contribute, contribute as they have to Wikipedia and other web 2.0 megasites.

A note from a participant: “libraries resist user-generated cataloguing.” This seems to me a cultural issue that is worth exploring. We do need to balance the authority of librarians in with what the crowds have to offer. But I’m pretty sure it’s not an either-or choice, as David Weinberger makes clear through his work.

One thing that makes a lot of sense is their plan for supporting the site over time. The combination of philanthropy (at least as start-up funds, if not for special projects over time) plus revenue generated through affiliate links over time makes a lot of sense as a sustainable business plan.

One could also see linkages between Open Library and 1) our H2O Playlists initiative (hat-tip to JZ) to allow people to share their reading lists as well as 2) what Gene Koo and John Mayer at CALI are doing with the eLangdell project.

It’s not a surprise that the truly wonderful David Weinberger — I can see him blogging this in front of me — brought Aaron here today to talk about this.

Where I’m left, at the end of lunch, is with a sense of wonder about what we (broadly, collectively) can accomplish with these technologies, a bit of leadership, a bit of capital, good communications strategies, and some good luck in the public interest over time. It’s awe-inspiring.

Alexander Hamilton and the web

During our weekly fellows’ discussion at the Berkman Center, the conversation turned to a series of issues related to information quality. (This turn of events is not surprising, given who was in the room.) Wikipedia, not surprisingly, cropped up as a topic early and often. One of the examples (good, bad, indifferent?) that David Weinberger raised was the controversy over how Alexander Hamilton’s disputed birthdate is presented (now, accurately in my view, the entry notes that there are two possible dates, one in 1757 which Hamilton himself claimed and an earlier date in 1755 which current scholars seem to prefer).

Which led me to check out the rest of the entry on Hammy. It’s really quite good overall. I’m a huge fan of Wikipedia and am so grateful that it exists. That said: my critique of this entry is that it is spotty. It is neither consistently strong nor consistently brief. Some topics are covered nicely and others not at all. Missing, in particular: discussion of Hamilton’s most famous report to Congress, the 1791 Report on Manufactures, the fourth major report he sent along to the legislature while he was Secretary of the Treasury in the Washington administration. It was this Report that led to the implementation by Congress of a large range of policies supportive of the American industrial state, and it is a classic now in political economic circles. Economists are interested in it for loads of reasons, not least Hamilton’s proposal of “bounties”. (I tried to add in some of this info, but couldn’t get through on the wiki to edit it; perhaps someone else can try at a better time.)

And then I tried to find a link to the full text of the Report itself elsewhere on the Web. Ten minutes of — perhaps clumsy — web surfing, mostly using Google and also Google Scholar and a few other similar resources, led me to plenty of excerpted versions, but no complete text. How hard would it be to load up the complete version of such a seminal work? This could be a wonderful job for Google Scholar or the like: make available a reliable, complete version of Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures and thousands of other documents that have changed history. I’m sure someone out there has it online, but it’s way too hard for someone, even someone who knows what he’s looking for and spends a lot of time on line, to find.

Aside: are you a Hamilton person or a Jefferson person? I am Hamilton.