“So What?” The Podcast about LIS Research & Why it Matters

Last year we started a podcast. Simple, right? Well, sort of. The basic idea was this: library and information science research is far less known (and utilized) than it should be. By practitioners, by journalists, and by the general public. We think we can make a small difference by talking with LIS researchers and helping them explain why their work matters.

So What?” is created and produced by graduate students at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), Western University. We are still at the early stages. Our goal is to highlight LIS research nationally and internationally, but we’ve started locally.

Episodes have featured stories on LGBTQ picture books, aging and death, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations, the importance of reading for pleasure, cataloguing games, truth and reconciliation in libraries, internet trolling, and inclusive design.

From the start the idea was to make this project a place to learn. While some of us had podcasting and radio experience, for most it was entirely new. We encouraged everyone to explore their interests, to learn at their own pace, to participate as they had time, to take as much responsibility or as little as they wished, and to produce an entire episode themselves or assist on one lead by others. Low floor, high ceiling.

More Information, Listen & Subscribe

So What? Website

Have a story to tell about your LIS research? Send us a note (sowhat at uwo.ca).

Many people have contributed to the success of the podcast, but two people deserve special mention: kirstyn seanor and Alex Mayhew (both LIS PhD students at FIMS). Alex has interviewed and edited, organized and promoted, and generally done whatever it takes to support the project. kirstyn is the guiding light of the project. Her vision for “So What?” as a platform for learning and as an inclusive, welcoming project has shaped the essence of what we do. Both amazing people.

So many people to thank for their assistance, participation, support, and encouragement: Paul Buckley-Golder, Jacquie Burkell, Erin Carroll, Yimin Chen, Nicole Ciccaglione, Marni Harrington, Mackenzie Johnson, Karolina Kayko, Charlotte McClellan, Cal Murgu, Jamie Lee Oliver, Lynn Ridley, Connor Spearman, and Kendall Sturgeon.

And a personal thanks to Kelly Jones who showed me how to make good radio and to my father, Jack Ridley, who was a highly recognized amateur radio enthusiast. If only I’d listened more to him. Kids eh?


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Today, after an over 45-year association with the University of Guelph, I’m retiring from the University. I first came to Guelph as a student in 1972, returning in 1979 as a newly minted librarian. After some years away at the Health Sciences Library at McMaster and the University of Waterloo Library, I came back in 1995 as the Chief Librarian and finally to be Guelph’s Chief Information Officer in 2004.

I was interviewed recently by Emily Jones, Manager of Communications in the Library. In that interview I tried to sum up what it meant for me to work at Guelph. Let me try again.

The daily demands of a job come and go. After a while, months turn into years and years into decades. At what seems a blink of an eye, you’ve spent most of your life at a place.

From one perspective, you could say that you have given a lot of time and energy to the job and to the organization. And while that may be true, that’s not how I feel about it. What I have received back from Guelph is infinitely more that I have been able to contribute. Guelph has been a gift to me.

I’ve always told staff who move on to another job, that they can go elsewhere but they will never leave Guelph. Guelph will always be with them, not as a nostalgic memory of times gone by, but as a symbol for a set of principles and values that are meaningful: Guelph as a true caring community.

“Retiring” is such a strange word to say. It hardly seems appropriate. As many will know, I’m really just moving on to a new challenge: continuing my PhD work at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University.

I’ve said “thank you” to people so many times over the past few weeks as my tenure at Guelph comes to an end, it must seem insincere to some. Let me assure you it isn’t.

We do all sort of “stuff” in our jobs: projects, implementations, planning, budgeting, fire-fighting, crisis management, on and on. However, what you remember, what matters, are the people you worked with, learned with, relied on, supported, and grew with. So, once again, with all sincerity, thank you.


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168:01 – A Library Rising from the Ashes

The remarkable Aga Khan Museum in Toronto currently has an equally remarkable installation. Entitled “168:01 – A Library Rising from the Ashes”, this piece from Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal is about building libraries as an act of resistance.

For those who hate, violence against libraries is a sadly popular way to eradicate culture and demoralize people. Bilal’s installation is a wall of shelves holding 750 blank books in white covers.

The work recognizes all the libraries destroyed in war and ignorance. In particular it remembers the 2003 burning and looting of the library in the College of Fine Arts at the University of  Baghdad.

Burnt books from the College of Fine Arts Library, University of Baghdad

Russel Smith’s excellent article in the G&M about the exhibit explains the title: “[it] refers to a legend in Iraqi history: when Mongol invaders destroyed a library in the 13th century, they threw the contents of an entire library into the Tigris. The books were said to bleed ink into the river for seven days (168 hours), until the were drained of their knowledge. The number 168:01 refers to the first hour of their reconstruction, beginning now.”

If you buy a book for the exhibit, your book replaces one of the blank ones. Gradually the shelves be will replenished and at the end of exhibit all the books will be shipped to the library at the College.

There is a recommended list of books available on Amazon.  I bought and donated Ai Weiwei’s Spatial Matters: Art Architecture and Activism. In return I brought home one of the blank books (#54) that will be replaced by the Weiwei book.

A small act of resistance but one I urge you all to make.


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My Biblio Fetish

I have a fetish (doesn’t everyone?). If you know me, this won’t come as a surprise.

Miniature books worn as lapel pins.

I have over a dozen and have given away dozens more. Most of them are stamped with the University of Guelph logo and we gave them to friends of the Library. Each one is unique.

Unfortunately, the bookbinder we used retired. Ack! I couldn’t get any more for the Library or myself.

My search for a new bookbinder was going nowhere until one day I was bemoaning this in a PhD class at FIMS, Western University. Alex says, “I know someone who could do this.”


Let me introduce Arielle VanderSchans. Arielle, also a PhD student at FIMS, is a very talented bookbinder and she enthusiastically took up the challenge of the miniature book pins.

After a series of back and forths to clarify what I wanted and what Arielle thought would look good, I received the first pin a few weeks ago. It’s beautiful.






And I’m delighted that these new ones are on the way!


You can find Arielle and her work on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter @ariellesbindery, and on the web at Arielle’s Bindery


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Naming Algorithmic Concerns

What’s in a name? Everything of course. Naming creates identity but it also shapes affect. Take algorithms. The literature on algorithmic concerns about fairness and discrimination is vast and growing.

The term “algorithmic bias” is most commonly used to describe these concerns. Bias is a generally well understood concept and is applied in many settings (e.g. journalism.) It works. Except, of course, in algorithms, “bias” can have a different (and benign) meaning with respect to the range of observations or measurements. Algorithmic bias is a good thing, except when it isn’t.

Other terms have emerged

Examples such as “algorithmic inequity” (Sara Watcher-Boettcher: Technically Wrong) or “algorithmic inequality” (Virginia Eubanks: Automating Inequality) highlight the social and economic effects, and echo “pay inequity” or other types of systemic discrimination. These are terms that resonant with familiar concepts but probably don’t provoke us as much as the authors would wish.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is “algorithmic violence” (Mimi Onuoha: Notes on Algorithmic Violence). No subtlety here. The harm is active, direct, and physical.

A related approach is Noble’s “algorithmic oppression” (Safiya Noble: Algorithms of Oppression). Highlighted here are the political dimensions and the social justice implications. It links to Noble’s observation that “artificial intelligence will become a major human rights issue in the twenty-first century.”

The last example, from the Politico journalist Julia Angwin, is insightful: “algorithmic privilege” (Julia Angwin: Quantifying Forgiveness). The perspective here is not the harm but the advantage. The bias in algorithms favours mainstream populations (i.e. white, middle class, etc.); it recognizes the differential rewards rather than the discriminatory penalties.


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Libraries as AI Model Repositories

Libraries and librarians have a critical role to support and enable explainable artificial intelligence (XAI). Calls for transparency and oversight of the opaque and potentially biased machine learning and deep learning systems have increased as the extent and influence of AI has also increased.

However, transparency often conflicts with the quite reasonable desire for the protection of intellectual property. Hence many regulations (e.g. the EU’s GDPR) have carve outs for IP protection dramatically restricting some XAI options like public access to code or algorithmic models. Third party oversight of AI (such as auditing) is a widely promoted XAI strategy but concerns about secure access are problematic.

Lilian Edwards and Michael Veale (Enslaving the Algorithm: From a ‘Right to an Explanation’ to a ‘Right to Better Decisions’?) offer an interesting option: libraries as secure places for model repositories. The idea resembles how access to sensitive Statistics Canada data is provided via Research Data Centres in academic libraries. The result would allow qualified and certified third parties access to the AI models and training data under conditions that would protect IP.

Three observations from this:

  1. Since third party auditing is a highly favoured strategy for XAI, I’m supportive of anything that furthers this.
  2. This suggestion establishes a new role for libraries as AI repositories. These collections will require increased sophistication in terms of collection management. However, their near-term value as auditing resources and their longer-term value as research collections makes this new role important.
  3. This proposal explicitly identifies libraries as secure and trusted. It selects libraries over other possible sites for such an archive. Edwards and Veale believe libraries are (or can be) ultra secure and have the mandate and capacity to be so. We have a track record with Stats Canada, although this one may require more diligence.

Of course, this option would almost certainly come with additional funding since libraries would be part of a formalized auditing regime mandated through regulation or legislation. For the forward-looking library (or library consortium – I’m looking at you OCUL), this could be an important opportunity and the beginning of a research collection of unprecedented value.


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On Not Travelling to the United States

In 2016 when several US states passed what have become known as the “bathroom bills” prohibiting transgendered people access to appropriate facilities, I joined in on the outrage. I tweeted about not to travelling to North Carolina and other states, withholding my tourist dollars, in protest. Someone on Twitter replied saying, quite reasonably, “yeah, big deal, you weren’t going to travel there anyway.”

He was right of course. It was an empty declaration. It had no real consequences.

At the beginning of this year, I decided that for the foreseeable future one way for me to protest the villainous actions and attitudes of the President of the United States was to refrain from any travel to the US. This includes academic travel as well as tourism.

I have not submitted papers to US conferences, I have not attended any US conferences, I’ve resigned from some associations that refuse to consider relocating their meetings, and I recently turned down an invitation to be a scholar-in-residence at a US liberal arts college. As an academic librarian and a PhD student, this decision has already impacted my ability to engage with colleagues and to advance my research work.

I know my decision can easily be viewed as pointless. I know that what I have given up is nothing compared to those in the US being deluded and oppressed by their own government. But it is something. And I felt I had to do something tangible and with consequences for me, however small and probably ineffective.


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Books and Screens and the Reading Brain

Last week I participated in the Books and Screens and the Reading Brain conference held at Vilnius University in Lithuania. The lead organizer was the EU COST action E-READ network and it drew attendees from across Europe. I was the only person from North America. The E-READ network is a group of researchers exploring the implications of digital reading.Vilnius is a fascinating city and I learned a lot about Lithuania (especially its troubled history and its very proud citizens). Vilnius University (founded in 1579) was a wonderful host. It was refreshing to be outside the US/Canada bubble that dominates most of my professional life.

Paper and Digital

Unsurprisingly, many of the papers discussed the digital reading experience: affect, comprehension, representation, intimacy, and even “aura”. The methodology of choice was eye-tracking. While a few researchers reported on the use of EEG and fMRI, eye-tracking was used by many to explore how we read digitally, especially in comparison to reading on paper.

And this leads to the most common theme: paper vs. digital. And the “versus” part should be emphasized. This was clearly competition. There were many good papers. One especially valuable meta-analysis (presented by Ladisiao Salmerón; a member of Rakefet Ackerman’s research team) analyzed dozens of empirical studies of paper and digital reading. According to the results, there is a clear “digital deficit” with respect to reading comprehension.

I confess to being tired of this debate, largely because it is an “apples and oranges” comparison.

Straight up comparisons of paper and digital reading typically standardize the text being read to isolate the effect of the media. However, few studies looked at e-readers (e.g. Kindles), so most compared paper reading to less optimal digital reading environments (i.e. computers or tablets). Writing on paper evolved to optimize the reading experience. It wasn’t always so (think of early manuscripts with dense typography and no punctuation or paragraphs). These studies change the format but they don’t consider changing the nature of the writing.

Put simply, effective digital reading requires appropriate/effective digital writing. Just as we write differently for paper so should we (in fact, do we) write differently for digital.

A more interesting empirical study would be to compare idea comprehension between a text written for and read from paper and a text written for and read from an e-reader (or an otherwise appropriate device). Still “apples and oranges”, but this time not a search for “deficit” but a search for effectiveness.


Posted in Digital Culture, Literacy | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Social Media, AI, and Those Pesky Humans

Sometimes it just falls into your lap….

As some will know, I’m fascinated by artificial intelligence (AI), especially how it relates to literacy and our notion of being literate.

So, when I read about Pi from Post Intelligence I was intrigued. Pi is an “intelligent social media assistant”. Pi will recommend tweets for you, review your tweets for effectiveness, select the best time for you to tweet, and (probably soon) tweet for you.


Pi from Post Intelligence

But here’s the comment from Post Intelligence founder Bindu Reddy, explaining why we need Pi, that leaped out at me:

“Humans find it very difficult to be good at social media.”

I know Twitter is already bot infested but this takes it to a new level. Give up, let the AIs do all that pesky reading, writing, and posting.

The idea that social media and humans aren’t a good fit both delights and appalls me.


Posted in Digital Culture, Literacy | 3 Comments


It seems this blog and my exploration of SF have gone off the rails a bit. Trying harder in 2017. Back to the SF project…..

Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984) begins with arguably the most famous opening sentence in SF:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

It is a sensational read but what does it tell us about post-literacy? Surprisingly less than I expected (and remembered) but only perhaps because so much of it is now commonplace.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.

While I’ve berated SF for poor writing, Neuromancer is not among them. This is a wonderfully realized novel with penetrating insights, subtle control of language, and startling images. By combining different genres (Raymond Chandler, Louis L’Amour, and William Burroughs echo throughout the novel) Gibson uses the old and familiar to highlight the new and strange. We appear to be in the known world of hard boiled PIs, outlaw cowboys, and 60s drug culture; but then again, we’re not.

The matrix, which now seems so commonplace, is described in ways that continue to capture the magic and complexity of cyberspace (a term Gibson made popular but did not originate). Gibson calls the matrix a “consensual hallucination” (p. 5) and the “infinite neuroelectronic void” (p. 115).

The battling AIs, Wintermute and Neuromancer, are the main attraction; it’s the type of battle that Elon Musk and the folks at OpenAI are currently worried about.

A few “post-literate” notes of interest:

People who used neuro implanted sockets for “microsofts” (knowledge chips) are described as “gone silicon” (p. 73).

The idea of the “simstim” is interesting but disappointingly one way. It allows Case to track and experience the sense data of Molly but she can’t respond. A bit voyeuristic.

McCoy Pauly (“The Flatline” or Dixie) is interesting because he is dead and exists now as a ROM “construct”: a static intelligence that can interact and accomplish knowledge based tasks but can’t learn anything new. It (he) does seem to have self-awareness, however, and longs to be erased (i.e. really, really dead).

As captured, codified knowledge and experience, a construct is a “live” or “living” resource (but not an AI). Presumably we could all leave/create constructs of ourselves to advise, influence, and even assist those in the present (as does the Flatline when he works with Case on the virus they unleash).

It’s a wonderful novel and it’s depiction of cyberspace is nothing short of poetry. And with Wintermute, Neuromacer, microsofts, simstims, and constructs we have some interesting insights into post-literacy.


William Gibson. Neuromacer (New York: Ace Book, 1984).

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