THE RAZOR'S EDGE
Inflection Point: Libraries and Community Data
by Brendan Howley
When librarians really take a hard look at serving their communities’ needs and wants, a funny thing happens: They bump up against not only the beliefs their neighbors and patrons are exploring by visiting library resources in the first place, but also—here’s the good part—the cultural triggers that underpin those beliefs (those embedded responses to lived cultural history that make us most us).
|Understanding cultural triggers is the essence of actionable intelligence about your community’s interaction with your library.
Here’s an example. Brampton, Ontario, a city of nearly 600,000 people just outside Toronto, has a substantial South Asian community (one of the biggest in all of North America) comprising immigrants new and old, Punjabi to Gujarati, Kashmiri to Keralan.
So what does one make of the library’s nighttime hives of extra-dedicated study sessions, with South Asian teens gathering there in numbers that would put far bigger institutions to shame? Is studying what’s really going on? Yes and no. All of that studying is actually a highly evolved method to end-run a community culture still influenced by traditional arranged marriage. It’s a dating strategy. Understanding cultural triggers is the essence of actionable intelligence about your community’s interaction with your library.
Recognizing that cultural trigger opens another line of inquiry: What if the teens at the library could be a lens on the dietary behaviors of their elders, many of whom suffer from undiagnosed diabetes? The parents and grandparents are a “fugitive population,” almost impossible to reach by orthodox research practices. But what if the children could be induced to talk about their parents’ diets? Might insights gleaned from their own dining room tables help relieve a diabetes epidemic? We shall see: I’m part of a team of researcher-entrepreneurs seeking to use mobile technologies to understand how to engage with fugitive populations.
Why? Because libraries are trusted entities. More than a few of those Brampton teens may well have first been exposed to English in the children’s section of the library. But that’s half of the answer. The other half is the old saw that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The second generation might well hold the key to the longevity of their parents’ generation.
Libraries and fugitive populations are a social researcher’s dream. My team and I are designing a similar methodology to engage the teens most impacted by Canada’s forthcoming legalization of recreational cannabis—a fugitive population if ever there was one, not least because no one really knows what lies ahead.
What we’re after here is an open tap of community data, all the more valuable because the data is contextualized in the first instance. This syndication of the original shared personal narratives opens the prospect for deepening community engagement around potentially divisive political issues. What we foresee, in essence, is the pre-validation of a political initiative by “telling its story” via the voices closest to the issue—the fugitive populations themselves.
Here’s the fun part. Breaking the silence about assumptions of power, hierarchy, and control incites social action in ways comparable perhaps only to the power of the book. Seeing to the heart of these things is something libraries have been about since their doors first opened.
Often, the most paradoxical discoveries bubble up. A recent study about social isolation in seniors upset a long-cherished belief that pets are a comfort to the isolated. New research suggests quite the opposite. In many cases, focusing affections on pets serves only to emphasize the dearth of human intimacy, a modicum of which we all need to sustain our sense of worth, meaning, and purpose.
The Social Future of Community Data
Then there’s the issue of humanizing the data itself. In the early days of genomics, the puzzling out of gene sequences and their relationship to incipient disease devoured massive computing power, on par, perhaps, only with the vast databases that the early supercomputers deployed to model weather systems.
Two decades later, as one Scripps Lab immunology researcher told me over dinner recently, genomics pioneers “are drowning in data. We don’t know what to do with what we haven’t had time to examine”—here he laughed—“and yet there’s another order of magnitude of detail and correlations headed straight at our lab to fend off.”
How do we democratize—as libraries have done for centuries—access to unimaginable volumes of data, perhaps useful only if contextualized by machine learning? Voices as disparate as Elon Musk and Noam Chomsky have warned that the real threat isn’t Stanley Kubrick’s vision of a super-intelligent computer named HAL hunting down and murdering helpless astronauts, but rather the economic hegemony of that almost unimaginably powerful technology—accessible only to the high priests of data science … and for a fee.
The artificial intelligence companies will, I think, dwarf Google and its ilk. They are the private utility grid of the future, what oil was to the apogee of the second industrial revolution—a playground for future Rockefellers and Mellons. With that in mind, libraries have a compelling challenge ahead. What is the social future of Big Data? Who will safeguard the small, the local, the social misfits, those in life crisis or recovery, and the least of the least when sheer economic utility becomes the order of the day?
Think back to our South Asian teens, knowing how their parents are eating and perhaps even knowing that the quality of their time with their parents is overshadowed by health issues that simple diet oversight could manage better. Leaving aside the cost savings to healthcare systems already stretched to their limits, action here will pay dividends.
We’re approaching an inflection point with no compass to help us move ahead in a safe and ethical way. The cultural triggers we considered earlier? Libraries are their custodians—a role that will increasingly draw librarians, ever self-effacing and consummately professional, deeper into the crucible of the politics of information.