The book-tuk, libraries for all

Roaming Library, Kathmandu Post, Mar 17, 2017

Roaming Library, Kathmandu Post, Mar 17, 2017

I like to season my bad news with an occasional snippet of good news. One such is from an article in the Kathmandu Post, “The roaming library,” by Rhythm Sah, a grade 9 student in Biratnagar, Nepal. He attends high school about 250 miles east of the capital, Kathmandu.

Sah writes,

I had never thought that mobile libraries existed. That’s why when I saw the Book Bus in my school ground one early morning, I was amazed. The bus reached us after hundreds of kilometres of travel from the Capital. When the door on the side of bus opened, we saw well arranged rows of books inside…. The bus, also known as a roaming library, had wonderful books with poems, stories and novels. I looked at some beautiful novels and pretty picture books.

The Book Bus, one of two, was started with help from the American Embassy about three years ago. There’s also a book-tuk, with solar-powered wireless internet service. It was made by modifying a type of small, three-wheeled, electric van, called a Tempo, or more commonly, a tuktuk.

Sah continues,

The main aim of establishing such library is to build reading habit in the youth, to exchange culture and to improve English speaking and writing skills. The bus reaches different corners of the nation and teaches the students how to enjoy books. I was very happy when the bus came to the school and was saddened when it continued on with its journey. The bus has made my love for books even stronger and I cannot wait until it comes back!

Tempo electric van, Kathmandu

Safa Tempo electric van, Kathmandu

The provision of library services, including books, video, and internet can make a huge difference in a country like Nepal, where many people lack the most basic services. This is especially true in the countryside, but for many in the large cities as well. For an amount of money that doesn’t even register in the US budget, the US can provide Nepalis with tools they need for education, development, and peaceful progress. With relatively small expenditures of money and no endangerment of lives, we can do more to promote peace and stability in Nepal and elsewhere than we have with any of our recent, ill-conceived wars.

The cost of a single B-2 Spirit jet is ten times the sum of all US aid to Nepal, including for democracy and human rights, economic development, education, environment, health, peace and security, and humanitarian assistance (such as earthquake relief). That jet is just one small piece of a military budget larger than those of the next seven countries–China, UK, Russia, France, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Germany combined. And yet, with already the largest military budget in the world, the President has proposed a huge increase in US military spending. The increase alone is about the size of Russia’s entire defense budget.

The new budget includes draconian cuts for library and museum services in the US and for similar programs abroad. Even if the cuts were justified, the savings from those programs would go only a small way toward funding the military increase. Whether one is concerned about ensuring a peaceful world, about spending taxpayer money wisely, about economic growth, about reining in the National debt, about creating opportunities for young people, or helping those in dire need, this is the wrong path to take.

Cutting programs such as the mobile libraries in Nepal reduces cross-national understanding and promotes instability that costs far more in the long run.

I hope that Sah and his friends can take advantage of the book bus and the book-tuk as long as they last.

Child-centered classification

I’ve been reading about Metis, a Dewey-free library classification system developed and implemented in 2011 by the librarians at the Ethical Culture School in New York City (Kaplan et al., 2013). The system places the thinking, interests, information needs and information-seeking behavior of children at its center. It was developed as an alternative to the Dewey decimal system, which is currently the most commonly used system in school and children’s sections of public libraries.

Metis is named for the Titan Metis, who was the mother of Athena. The Greek word metis means a quality that combines wisdom and cunning. The system is designed to encourage productive independent browsing and successful catalog searching by children. Its emphasis on situation specificity, flexibility, and user-centered design is closer to John Dewey than to Melvil Dewey. I liked this on the Metis site:

Our decision to create Metis is a result of our progressive approach to education and the library. The system isn’t a cut-down version of adult thinking. Kids feel empowered to navigate the library because it is organized in a way that they understand. Metis increases the success rate of finding books, which fosters self-reliance and produces joyous discovery.

The Metis main categories are based on studies of the practices of young children. They put users and their needs and interests at its center, and curriculum, collection, and library geography second. In contrast to the Dewey system, they are not meant to reflect the state of human knowledge or depict the relationship of one branch of knowledge to another. The categories are ordered using the letters of the alphabet, A-Z. This is the only code that is not whole language.

For example, H. Arts, might include art books, biographies of artists, and fiction featuring artists, whereas in most other systems those would all be in widely separate categories. U. Scary is a category of special interest to children, either as one to seek or one to avoid. G. MakingStuff would include cooking, model building, magic tricks, and crafts of all kinds.

Some obvious concerns about Metis are whether youthful readers can make the transition to other systems. One critic asked “What happens to these children when they arrive at a college or university and need to learn the Library of Congress classification system?” Notwithstanding the fact that very few college-educated adults presently learn LC, I’m inclined to support an experiment aimed at getting children to read more. Moving to another school could present problems, too, but seeing classification as a human construction could be a valuable learning experience in itself.

Almost a century ago, Célestin Freinet developed a classification scheme with a similar motivation, to facilitate the easy finding of documents. It was also for his Bibliothèque de Travail, a collection of student and teacher-made booklets for the classroom. The Freinet classification is also a simple system, similar to the Dewey decimal system, and reliant on the decimal coding.

There are 12 major divisions, such as 1.3 2. Plants1.4 3. Animals, and 1.5 4. Other sciences, with subdivisions and sub-subdivisions. Many educators see it as more logical and natural for school work than the Dewey system, although it is closer to that than is Metis. The Freinet classification is still used in the libraries of some elementary schools.

I’ll be interested to see how well these alternatives work and how much they spread to other libraries.

References

The Frontiers of Democracy, almost

The Social Frontier was a radical journal, which saw the school as an agent of social change. It was published at Teachers College for six years, starting in 1934. After that it was sponsored by the Progressive Education Association and changed its title to Frontiers of Democracy. The final issue was published in 1943.

The writers and editors for Social Frontier / Frontiers of Democracy (SF/FD) were dedicated to creating a more open society, one in which democratic participation was not simply a slogan, but a living reality. That meant expanding educational opportunities, increasing access, developing critical, socially-engaged citizens (where “citizen” means any resident), and involving all in what Dewey called the process of authority.

I’m sure the SF/FD writers would be pleased to know that the Teachers College Record and the Gottesman Libraries are “re-releasing the journal both because of its historical importance and because of its continued relevance to educators today.” The collection has been digitized and presented on a well-designed web page.

SF/FD writers would applaud the recognition of its continuing value. They would quickly understand the web as a new means for increasing access and accomplishing more of the democratic mission that they had undertaken. They would envision that teachers, parents, administrators, politicians, and the ordinary citizen as well, would certainly have some means for convenient access.

Along with that they would of course recognize the need to recover costs and to value the labor required to publish and distribute texts. But it’s hard to imagine that they would be pleased to know that the very journal they had established “to lead educators in the building of an enlightened America” (Harold Rugg) is effectively off limits to most of the people they hoped to reach, despite the new technological affordances.

How many individuals will choose to subscribe to TCRecord simply in order to access SF/FD? Even people at other universities willing to pay the appropriate costs, and current subscribers to TCRecord, are excluded since the institutional subscription does not include SF/FD. In the midst of information overload, the apparently modest terms can be off-putting: “The introductory rate of $20 is available for a limited time…Your membership will automatically renew every 365 days…No refunds are offered for early cancellation.” I suspect that at best many will decide to look at the print version if and when it’s available to them, and resign themselves to being unable to share any findings more widely with the very audience that the journal envisions.

Rugg’s books and the progressive education movement in general suffered from rightwing attacks through the late 1930’s into the McCarthy era. Today the movement suffers more from indifference and a lack of understanding of the issues involved. A paywall for a relatively obscure journal that ceased publication over 70 years ago does little to help. I assume that TC or TCRecord has full copyright, but it’s worth noting that the journal was sponsored for half its life by the Progressive Education Association (as Frontiers of Democracy), and as such only in part by TC.

In the final issue, Rugg says, “Our treasured American way of life is in great danger, not only from menacing fascists and false patrioteers, but primarily because our people, standing baffled and bewildered on the threshold of abundance are unable to bring about such a life.” Much the same could be said today; it’s a pity that the opportunity to further dialogue on these issues has been lost. As too often happens, a good project with a noble purpose undermines its own agenda, for apparently petty reasons.

Journal series on progressive education

The International Journal of Progressive Education (IJPE) has now published a series of three special issues on “Progressive Education: Past, Present and Future”:

  1. Progressive Education: Antecedents of Educating for Democracy (IJPE 9.1, February 2013)
  2. Progressive Education: Educating for Democracy and the Process of Authority (IJPE 9.2, June 2013)
  3. What’s Next?: The Future of Progressivism as an “Infinite Succession of Presents” (IJPE 9.3, October 2013)

I worked on these journal issues with John Pecore, Brian Drayton, and Maureen Hogan, as well as article contributors from around the world. We’re now exploring options for developing some of the articles along with some additional material into a handbook. The series is timely given current debates about the purpose and form of education in an era of rapid technological change, globalization, demographic and political shifts, and growing economic inequities. It asks, “What have we learned about pedagogy that can support democratic, humanistic, and morally responsible development for individuals and societies?”

Progressive education is a pedagogical movement that emphasizes aspects such as learning by doing, student-centered learning, valuing diversity, integrated curriculum, problem solvingcritical thinking, collaborative learning, education for social responsibility, and lifelong learning. It situates learning within social, community, and political contexts. It was promoted by the Progressive Education Association in the US from 1919 to 1955, and reflected in the educational philosophy of John Dewey.

But as an approach to pedagogy, progressive education is in no way limited to the US or the past century. In France, the Ecole Moderne, developed from the work of Célestin Freinet, emphasizes the social activism side of progressive education. Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education demonstrates the importance of art in learning, a key element of the holistic approach in progressive education. Paulo Freire’s work in Brazil on critical literacy, highlights the link between politics and pedagogy. Similarly, influenced by his experiences in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi’s conception of basic education resonates with progressive ideals of learning generated within everyday life, cooperation, and educating the whole person, including moral development.

It is worth noting that progressive education invariably seeks to go beyond the classroom walls. Thus, the work of Jane Addams and others at Hull House with immigrants fits, even if it is not situated within a traditional school. Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School focused on social activism with adults, exemplifying the progressive education ideals. So too is the Escuela Nueva in Spain, Colombia, and elsewhere. The informal learning in museums, libraries, community and economic development, and online may express progressive education more fully than what we see in many schools today.

We hope that these issues will prove to be a useful resource for anyone interested improving education for a healthier world.

The ‘Invisible’ Forces of Haiti

Elizabeth Pierre-Louis

Elizabeth Pierre-Louis

I heard a very impressive lecture yesterday titled, “The ‘Invisible’ Forces of Haiti—How Can Books and Culture Help the Reconstruction Process,” from Elizabeth Pierre-Louis, library program coordinator at the Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL), Haiti. There should soon be links to a video recording and the text from the summary.

The talk reminded me of  the devastation of the Haiti earthquake. As bad as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California was, the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan was many times worse than that in terms of deaths and homes destroyed. But the Haiti earthquake was many times worse than Japan’s with as many as 300,000 killed and 1.5-2 million homeless. The current cholera epidemic shows that even a terrible situation can become worse.

Haiti has neither the money nor the technical expertise to recover, and half of the people are under age 21 (some sources say half are under 18). It’s also one of our closest neighbors, and many of its problems are directly traceable to the US’s unquestioning support for the Duvaliers’ dictatorship that robbed the country of what little it had. Last year, the world pledged $5 billion in aid, which was not nearly enough, but then delivered on only a third of that.

It’s inspiring, and humbling, to see how Haitians continue to live, to create, and to work together in spite of challenges no one should have to face alone.

Libraries for netroots activists?

Netroots is a term that describes political activism organized through blogs, wikis, social network services, and other online media. Jerome Armstrong used it first in Netroots for Howard Dean (2002) on MyDD.

The netroots can be a powerful alternative to traditional media and organizations. Often though, the change that activists promote never happens, can’t be sustained, or can’t scale. Netroots talk doesn’t always lead to action.

It may seem to strange to turn to libraries as a solution. Aren’t libraries all about books and old stuff, not the new participatory culture of the net? Aren’t they determinably neutral, both unwilling and unable to engage with the kinds of change activists seek?

In fact, libraries already play a crucial role to support activism of various kinds. And they’re already deeply entangled both with how we go online and with how we find what’s not available there. They’re not only a supplement to the netroots, but a necessary resource to bring netroots activism to life.

If you go to any public library in the US at opening time, you’ll see a group of people waiting to enter. They’re of all ages, ethnicities, and genders, dressed in formal business attire, sports clothes, or old rags. Some may be waiting to check out a book or video, but most are waiting to go online to read their mail, connect with friends, check the news, hunt for a job or apartment, shop, book travel, or do any of the many other functions that reveal how much the net has infiltrated our lives. For them, the library is the face of the net, and the only, or at least the best, way of connecting with it.

Moreover, libraries can provide substantive data, e.g., on the climate, business trends, local history, political processes, art, and more, which is not always available online; text resources, including books, journals, magazines; videos and software; and repositories or archives of local activities. They also offer meeting spaces, and sustainable local points of contact. These resources can expand enormously the knowledge base for netroots activism, something that can turn strongly held views into evidence-based arguments and uncover duplicity in corporate or government bodies.

Libraries also offer reference services, which is important since the deep web holds several orders of magnitude more information than the surface web, and non-web information is much more than that. Libraries also offer instruction on accessing all of these resources, data, and services.

Beyond finding information, libraries increasingly offer opportunities to create and house community-designed or collected resources. For example, a collaboration between Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and the Newberry Library in Chicago led to a student-curated Puerto Rican history exhibit at the Newberry: Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.

As a means of finding information and tools, a venue for creating resources, a place to learn, and access in the first place, libraries can help turn netroots talk about activism into real action in the world. Of course, most libraries are devoted to principles of open access for all. As a result, what they offer is available to groups large and small, but also to groups on opposing sides of an issue. This means that despite all the power and innovation of the net, much of the action is still, if not increasingly, found in the library.

Don’t Throw It Away!

Our family has recently devoted considerable effort to weed out family memorabilia and to pass on, give away, or throw out once treasured knick-knacks, books, and pictures. There are many more boxes to go, all filled with possible treasures, but more likely, with white elephants that don’t fit into any of our current homes or lifestyles.

Some items would be useful for others who have real needs. Giving those away makes more sense than letting them occupy space in a closet or attic. Many old family photographs and letters could be digitized and discarded. Other items have lost their provenance: Did this vase come from Aunt Fanny or Granny? Does not knowing that diminish any remaining value?

As we strive to discard things, it may seem strange to talk about deliberate saving, but thoughtful preservation can actually help in the downsizing process. An excellent 2006 booklet from the University of Illinois at Chicago, written by Sandra Florand Young and revised by Douglas Bicknese and Julia Hendry talks about exactly that. Although it’s a manual for small organizations, the basic principles apply for families and individuals as well.

Don’t Throw It Away! Documenting and Preserving Organizational History encourages organizations, both large and small, to save and organize their office and project records…It offers practical advice on providing security for records and setting up an in-house archives, as well as factors to consider should the organization want to deposit records in an institution…

Organizational records not only document the work of an organization, they tell the story of the community and its people, their successes and the issues that they believe to be important.