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Archive for March, 2009

The Future of Newspapers

Monday, March 30th, 2009

The economic downturn seems to be accelerating conversations about the future of the newspaper business. Recent announcements that the Christian Science Monitor and Seattle Post-Intelligencer would no longer produce print editions, but would instead be online-only publications have accompanied news that other newspapers will simply close. The Rocky Mountain News simply ceased publication, as have many smaller newspapers across the country.

The implications of this have spawned a series of conversations on the web. Here’s a small sampling of my favorite additions to the standard theme, which tends to run: “The death of newspapers will be the death of an important part of our democracy and civilization.”

Clay Shirky argues quite forcefully in Thinking The Unthinkable that a business based on the expectation that the means of publishing and distribution are expensive and scarce cannot survive when, with the Internet, neither of those things is true. He suggests distinguishing between journalism, which is essential, and newspapers, which are merely one means to that end.

Caveat Lector points out that libraries face similar questions as they manage a transition to a future which is already here–and points to Tom Scheinfeldt at Found History, who suggests that conversations among humanists about whether technology is relevant to teaching and research are disturbingly similar to a divide between pragmatists and realists Shirky describes.

Newspapers are an important part of our common culture, but from the perspective of a library which manages dozens of formats, I am less concerned about the form information takes than I am about the content. My last library had music recorded on wax cylinders. The National Archives has a working version of the machine used to record the Nixon tapes. Every library in the country has VHS tapes which increasingly few patrons have the equipment to handle. Formats change. Newspapers have a long history, but ultimately they are just a way of displaying and distributing a particular kind of information. Hang on, we’ll all work this out together.

Mapping Mutual Incomprehension

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

Classicists love it when people say “It’s all Greek to me” at parties. Really.

The blog Strange Maps has a diagram showing which languages speakers of various other languages consider gibberish. For the French, Javanese. For Croatians, Spanish.

Dystopia meets alternative energy

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Something lovely from XKCD, my favorite web comic. It’s as a rule disturbingly well-read, and tends to do math, science, and geek culture jokes. But today, some crossover. Read to the last panel for the literature tie-in.

Pew Forum on Religion and American Life

Friday, March 13th, 2009

ThePew Forum on Religon and American Life has a nice collection of reports and survey information on religion and politics. See, for example, their profile of African-Americans and religion, or a report on whether a bad economy leads to higher church attendance rates, or a survey on views of the new Pope, Mormonism, and Islam.

What makes this unique is that, unlike with most other demographic information, there isn’t another neutral party gathering it. Which is not so much to say that denominational reporting is flawed, only that it’s gathered for particular purposes. Usually the federal government is *the* source for demographics and statistics (population, occupation, income, education, etc.–see Fedstats), but the Census bureau hasn’t collected information on religion regularly since 1936 or, in fact, at all since a law forbidding census questions about religion was passed in 1976. The parties listed at the link above are all serious and respectable, but tend to be oriented around Christian churches, with much less-coverage of non-Christian religions. That said, the Association of Religious Data Archives has a really interesting interactive map generator which will give you denominational breakdowns down to county level. Or just type in a zip code you’re interested in.

Have a good spring break.

A few thoughts on Wikipedia

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Wikipedia is a delightfully controversial topic in academia. What’s fascinating about it from my perspective as an information professional is how unlike anything else it is. Originally designed to be something like Encyclopedia Britannica or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the way it is structured and works has a profound influence on how useful it is for any given topic.

The link to the Hitchhiker’s Guide is, of course, to Wikipedia. This is to illustrate two strengths of Wikipedia: its coverage of popular culture, particularly geek culture (the Hitchhiker’s Guide is from a series of science fiction novels by Douglas Adams); and, more importantly, the extent to which it is addressable–that is, the extent to which it is easy for me to link to it so you can see what I’m talking about. It’s possible to link to all manner of library resources, but usually only possible for certain communities of users to have access to them. I could link to the Tufts subscription version of Britannica below, but because I have readers who aren’t members of Tufts I am not, out of courtesy to them and because I can make my point another way.

Comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica

Wikipedia on Iraq War


Encyclopedia Britannica on Iraq War

I find it really hard to argue that the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War isn’t comprehensively superior to the article on Britannica or, in fact, to the coverage in most any specialized scholarly encyclopedia I could name. Here’s why:

1) It cites its sources. Because the topic is so controversial and attracts so much attention, any statement which is not supported by a reference to a reliable external source is almost immediately thrown out. The result is that there are over four hundred footnotes, most to major media outlets and respectable think tank publications. Britannica doesn’t cite its sources explicitly.

2) It’s more detailed. Because a normal encyclopedia is a consensus document you tend to get very bland discussions of controversial topics, which means Britannica tends to take the view that time will tell what the important details to include are. The practical effect of this is that if you want a discussion of the issues related to the US surge policy, still controversial, Britannica is no help at all.

3) All of the versions of the article are available for review. Revisions are signed and at least internally traceable.

4) Its editorial decision-making is available for public viewing. Just click on “Discussion” at the top of the page. The lack of this kind of openness in scholarly publishing leads to Facebook groups like “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped“, a complaint about the problems with anonymous peer review.

5) It has more contributors, and more editors, and more reviewers, than any print source could hope to have. This is not true for all articles, but it is for high-traffic articles like this one.

6) It will be constantly updated, often within minutes of a new development. Even the online version of Britannica can’t manage that. Try checking Wikipedia for the next fast-developing piece of news, or look at the page history of the article on the Mumbai attacks…which was created within hours of the attack and evolved as more became known.

Wikipedia has its problems, but I find its greater detail and openness about its sources and its process to mostly make up for them. Obscure facts in Wikipedia might or might not attract the same level of attention. Look for part two of this essay, Wikipedia’s problems, right here soon.