book review: towards a new manifesto

Towards a New Manifesto is a dialogue about Marxist philosophy between Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They are important in Marxist critical theory and are the kinds of theoreticians I did not read enough of in my undergrad and then took “professional” graduate degrees that fled even the notion of critically examining the ways our professions think about what we do. Or I just slacked off in those classes.

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It was a very fragmented dialogue that I felt I was missing a lot of context for. I did not feel very smart while reading it, but if bits of it got lodged in my brain somewhere for the next Marxist theory book I read, then I think it’s succeeded.

book review: days of destruction, days of revolt

Some days, most days really, I want to be a journalist. Not the kind that writes press releases, but the kind that goes out into the world, sees something and tells everyone else what it looks like. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is exactly that kind of book, created by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. It’s about the United States and the people who are at the bottom of a destructive economic system designed to enrich only the already rich. It culminates in Zuccotti Park with a chapter on Occupy, but it gets there via coal-mining, land claims, agricultural work and for-profit urban decay.

It’s not a scholarly book, but it has data to go with its interviews. Sacco illustrates the whole thing, which contributes to the personal feeling of it all. I loved the Sacco bits where he went into the full on comics as oral history treatment, drawing the stories the person was telling them.

This was an unabashedly political and very good book about 21st-century recession-era America. Highly recommended.

book review: the eye of the heron

According to an interview in The Paris Review The Eye of the Heron was the first of Ursula K Le Guin’s science fiction novels that she felt was doing something radical, politically.

It’s a story of two communities on a colony world, the City and the Town. The City was the first wave of colonists, mostly criminals, few women and strict notions of hierarchy. The Town was made up of peace-loving anarchists who were causing trouble back on earth. Guess which of these groups is the one I was rooting for!

The plot starts when a scouting party returns to the town to say they found a great spot for a new settlement. The Town people talk to the City people to say what they’d like to do but they are accused of rebellion and leaders are imprisoned. The rest of the book is about negotiation and resistance through talking and letting that which does not matter truly slide. It’s quite good as a depiction of how Gandhi-style challenging of hierarchy and power can work. The reeds not the oak and such.

book review: homeland

I will confess that I put off reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland for months simply because the story opens at Burning Man. Back when it came out I bought it, put it on my ereader and read the first few pages and went Ugh. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s just the kind of book that needs to be read in summer. In any case this time I was ready for it and really liked the book.

Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, but in this one Marcus has graduated from high school and dropped out of university and is trying to get by in our modern economy, which gets him involved in politics. There are plot points about leaking politically sensitive materials and surveillance and hacking party politics to reflect what real people (or at least tech-savvy San Franciscans) care about. It’s pretty great, and sadly topical.

The topicality is a big part of what I like about this book. Aaron Swartz wrote the afterword and it’s great. The book did have a bunch of Doctorow’s essayistic explanatory tics (you read a lot about cold-brewed coffee in this book) but it feels more like a novel with excited explanations than a polemic with a plot. But there’s enough information in it to be inspiring.

It’s the kind of book I’d like lots of people to read, not just high school students. It was enough of a kick in the ass for me to finally root my old phone and install Tor on it, so if you measure a book by how it changes behaviour this was a good one.

book review: trickster makes this world

Trickster Makes This World is a book about how trickster myths work in different cultures and the impact they have on the cultures they’re found in. It was a very interesting examination of creativity and art and the importance of transgression to humans.

Before picking up the book I was expecting to be reading about Coyote, Raven and Anansi, but Lewis Hyde was interested in a wider interpretation of Trickster that included Hermes (never having read much Greek mythology I wouldn’t have assumed the messenger was a trickster, but now I do) and Loki and applied how trickster-like transgression is used within history by political agents like Frederick Douglass.

It’s written in a pop-science kind of style so it’s not a difficult time. Because of that the insights feel a little easy, maybe a little glib. There’s definitely room to argue with Hyde because of the simplification he does in looking at all these myths with his specific focus. I enjoyed the book but it’s about analyzing stories in a certain way, which might not be the kind of thing everyone would be interested in.

book review: the world that never was

Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was is not as phantasmagorical as its title might imply, but if you add in the subtitle – A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents – you get a bit closer to the matter. It’s a history of anarchists and revolutionists in 19th century Russia and France primarily. I don’t read a lot of history so I don’t know if it was tremendously accurate. It gave me a bit better an idea of some of the political challenges going on at the time and how the secret police used agents provacateur to try and manoeuvre naive folks to serve other political ends. I liked it because it was about the people who were leftist but not Marxist, which is something especially historically I am very capable of forgetting.

library and archives canada’s fear of librarians

I can’t imagine working for an organization that would put out a code of conduct that prohibits its employees from engaging in teaching, conference attendance or other “personal engagements” on their own time. I mean, I can imagine it; I just imagine it would suck. And for the librarians at Library and Archives Canada who are in charge of keeping the country’s information organized and accessible for all Canadians to be muzzled in such a way is complete bullshit.

From the recently-leaked LAC Code of Conduct Values and Ethics in regards to an employee participating in a conference or speaking engagement on her own time (p.17):

An employee may accept such invitations as personal activities if all of the following conditions are met:

  • The subject matter of the activity is not related to the mandate or activities of LAC;
  • The employee is not presented as speaking for or being an expert of LAC or the Government of Canada;
  • The third party is not a potential or current supplier to/collaborator with LAC;
  • The third party does not lobby or advocate with LAC;
  • The third party does not receive grants, contributions or other types of funding or payments from LAC;
  • The employee has discussed it with his or her manager, who has documented confirmation that the activity does not conflict with the employee’s duties at LAC or present other risks to LAC.

Personally, the idea of having to have off-work-time speech needing to be okayed by a manager gets up my nose in terms of chilling effects. Who’s going to ask interesting questions if they must check with risk-averse superiors first? Other people who are more in tune with how organizations work than me point out that the other clauses mean LAC employees couldn’t feel at ease going to talk at their kids’ school about being an archivist, let alone work with academics who might get some funding from LAC. One would think you’d want interesting thinkers at a country’s flagship library instead of mere functionaries. I would think so, anyway.

Because I was interested I looked at the social media segments of this code of conduct. They say that if an employee said something within a limited group of people that was shared to a wider audience, the employee could be subject to disciplinary measures, because of her “duty of loyalty.” Now my reading of that section seems to indicate that as long as the individual employee isn’t representing LAC’s position, but her own, things would be fine. Of course, I don’t take anything said by a person to be representative of their employer’s views, because that is crazy. Oh wait. If someone could find out where you worked and that you had an opinion then it would count as you trying to represent LAC’s opinion and smack goes the hammer.

I’m sorry, LAC employees. I think we, as librarians and as humans, should be asking interesting questions. The photographer Clayton Cubitt recently wrote a blogpost about labelling which of the pictures he posts on Tumblr are NSFW (not safe for work) after an explanation of how to get a feed of just his SFW pictures he went on to talk a little bit about alignment of your philosophy with your workplace. And there he says: “So the only real solution is in your hands: don’t work at a job that doesn’t share your personal philosophy.”

I think that’s good advice. And actually I think it’s good in its way that LAC sets out its philosophy so starkly so its employees can see how it diverges from their philosophies. They are clearly saying to their librarians “We don’t trust you. You are our enemy.” Having such a clear enemy makes some things easier. You know who you should pull your support from. The problem however is that LAC isn’t just some company making widgets or apps. It’s supposed to be preserving and organizing the citizenry’s information for use, and it’s not like the librarians who have been made enemy of their institution can just start up another one.

Let’s just get this out there: I would hate to work at LAC. But we need a National Library. If this strangulation of its workers means that librarians dedicated to freedom of information and access for the citizens leave or get chilled out of proposing any ideas to talk about that is a huge fucking loss. The librarians shouldn’t have to leave because the government doesn’t understand what the job of a librarian is.

We need people to change this. Part of the job of being a librarian is to stand up for freedom of thought and expression. That has to apply within the National Library as well as in society in general. We have to make the rules at our National Library fit the job and its values. This should be a no-brainer for librarians. We should all be do our best to help people with their information needs, which might involve asking interesting difficult awkward questions. We aren’t supposed to be scared of ideas. That is part of my personal philosophy and something I believe makes me a good librarian.

This is not a very focused blogpost. Organizations I belong to are writing much more eloquent letters outlining the issues for a general public and other librarians. I don’t know what you should do. They probably will. I will link to them as they come up.

This is just a response. My response. (Not that of any employer of mine, past, present or future.)