The Invisible College

I’ve been reading The Age of Wonder, a book about Romanticism in the scientific explorations of the 18th century. Though part of my enjoyment of this book comes from the in-depth look at the history of science, particularly astronomy (and Caroline Herschel!), what has particularly struck me is the prominence of personal relationships in the furthering of scientific discovery. Beyond what we now term “networking,” friendships and even familial relationships among talented and enthusiastic observers of the natural world helped fuel the age’s engine of science.

This social model of intellectual support is a form of invisible college, a term Diana Crane used to describe the networks of scientists that contribute directly or, more often, indirectly to their research paths. You may or may not ever co-publish with a fellow of your invisible college, but his or her intellectual influence on your life enriches your own work. (I’m paraphrasing and extrapolating the idea pretty heavily here, as I don’t have a copy of Crane’s original study on hand. A good overview, with editorial by Crane, is available here: http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/classics1989/A1989AT41600001.pdf. I was introduced to the concept during coursework on scholarly communication with Debbie Rabina at Pratt.)

These kinds of relationships, paired with modern ease of information sharing, are helping to fuel not only formal interdisciplinary study but also the general tide of awareness of current ideas. Yesterday I posted a congratulatory note here in support of the bedrock of my personal invisible college. She and my friends in disciplines ranging from architecture to international policy to law help enrich my intellectual life through the sharing of articles and news items from their areas of expertise and through challenging me to act as a nascent expert in information science and cultural studies. My close colleagues from library school help keep me up-to-date on the aspects of the field that I don’t interact with directly but benefit from familiarity with. We use social media not only to share personal information or the latest comedic video, but to expand the horizons of our understanding.

I’m grateful for the tools at my disposal and the ability to use them with ease. I’m also enormously lucky to have been part of a vibrant intellectual community at Pratt and to have stumbled into friendships with brilliant people.

We are living in an age of shifting social options, a deluge of information, and enormous challenges to the academy. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that we may some day return to the personal model of scholarly pursuit illustrated in The Age of Reason.

Then again, maybe I’m just a romantic.

Some short thoughts on Google Reader

(In case you’re not caught up on the Reader kerfluffle, here’s a great post about what’s happening — ironically, in Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/0/109372531542734504522/posts/fHsSwwY4HUK)

I rely heavily on Google Reader to get my information about what’s going on in the library world. I follow blogs on mobile computing, library operations, and intellectual property law in my own feeds, and I get a lot of news about other aspects of library and info science from my friends’ shared items. Once upon a time, I used Livejournal’s RSS functionality to get my blogs because I was on it constantly (every day, at least twice a day – this is the days before Facebook, people). Livejournal was, like Reader is currently, social but asynchronous — you could catch up on things and people because they were in a static, logical page. Reader has added functionality, of course, but the ability to highlight specific stories of interest from the deluge of news and information – WITHOUT getting lost in the stream of “meh” and “omg awesome” and party pictures — is the key aspect here.

I like Google+. I’ve been wishing since I started using it that there was a way to export my Reader shares into Plus (like I do to Twitter). What I never wished for was a reduction in usability of Reader in favor of Plus. If Google can keep ALL the functionality of Reader in a smooth integration to Plus, then bully for them. If they can’t, I think we’re going to start to see the beginnings of the exodus of power users and content creators out of the Google world.

The best and brightest of my LIS class are Reader users. They are thoughtful, insightful, and engaged with the world around them. They understand information use and they understand tech. These are the people Google needs to be listening to.

Don’t be evil, Google, but more importantly, don’t be dumb.

Happy Clueless Shopper Day!

Valentine’s Day is always one of my favorite days to be a Victoria’s Secret employee. Even on a Monday like today, our stores are filled with clueless yet oddly intent shoppers desperate to get the thing that the other person vaguely (or worse, specifically but incomprehensibly) indicated they wanted. It’s eerily akin to the reference desk the week before final exams.

For Valentine’s Day, blinking, apprehensive men wander into our rooms full of pink confections looking for “well it’s kind of a soft material? and I think it’s pretty stretchy?” or “well I just want something that goes together” or “she told me it’s a low-rise lace-top cheeky, but I don’t know what that is.” (Heaven help them when we tell them we actually have six different kinds of low-rise lace-top cheekies.) Every patron services librarian knows this kind of attitude. Some of our patrons (particularly our undergrads) are sure that there’s A Thing that they’re supposed to get, and hopefully they’ll know it when they see it, but if not, they depend on us, the experts, to tell them that yes, this is what your instructor wanted, and we’ll explain to you WHY it’s what you need. We’re there to help them identify the general class of Thing they’re looking for and then coax them to make their own choices.

Victoria’s Secret has a vocabulary that’s just as opaque to these kinds of customers as the language of librarianship is to a student new to research. It’s our job as customer service providers to be intrepid translators not only of the original assignment but also of the result of the searches we guide our patrons through.

So happy Valentine’s Day to all you retail workers and patron service librarians. I hope it was full of satisfied customers.