From the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Wired Campus Blog: Adventures in Fair-Use Doctrine:

Fair-use doctrine, as codified in U.S. law, allows people to reproduce portions of copyrighted works "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research." That seems straightforward enough. But there's a spanner in the works, as Shelley Batts can attest: Copyright holders can't seem to agree on just which uses are fair.

Last week Ms. Batts, a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, wrote a harmless-looking blog post about a study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. The study examined the effects of alcohol on the antioxidant properties of some fruit. She summarized its findings and reproduced a chart and a graph from the journal.

Read the rest of the post at the link above, detailing how the blogger dealt with a legal demand that she remove the charts from her site.


The Post-Digital Library

In the May issue of Harper’s, Gideon Lewis-Krauss writes about the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, a privately owned and operated library a few blocks from the city’s public library. Its owners, Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger, focus their collection on physical materials working together with digital holdings. The couple sees libraries as refuges for the kind of materials that might get lost or left behind in digitization efforts, like the “ephemeral” film collection Rick Prelinger is famous for (mostly educational and instructional films from the past several decades).

The Prelingers also want to preserve libraries as places of discovery. Search engines have seemingly made research too efficient; you nearly always find what you’re looking for. For the Prelingers, this eliminates part of the excitement of library visits: the unpredictability. Their library is not organized by the Dewey Decimal system or the LOC system. It is associative and geographic. Patrons need orientation and help from the librarians if they are to find their way, and once they find their way they might discover things they never knew existed. As Lewis-Krauss writes, their organization scheme creates a certain “browsability” that reveals “a narrative structure” within the library. In essence, a patron can read this library like a massive text, organized on multiple levels in a highly personal way.

Their library subverts traditional order, but the question I will briefly answer is whether this amounts to a hypertext. They want to keep libraries as niches for certain materials that will not be put together in other ways, and I think there is something to this. It adds a personal touch that databases and search spiders cannot provide; the best part, though, is the Prelingers’ belief that the divide between digital media and print is false. Their library’s organization proves, in a way, that falseness.

If a library can exist and be moderately successful, as theirs is, it’s a sign that something is working. By in a way evolving the organization of their library away from the machine-like, rigid, traditional systems, they emulate hypertext, a somewhat more organic and fluid sort of system. It’s the perfect marriage of the two systems, and a sign that culture might be ready for differently-organized systems (Web 2.0 anyone, Semantic Web?)

Lewis-Krauss calls it a post-digital library, an apt title. We live in era of “posts.” I wonder when we’ll consider the things we create to be the next real things, and not just the reactions or epilogues to earlier ways of thinking. Perhaps the Prelinger Library will be a model.

“Interesting places are rubbish!”

I’ve just gotten back into town after a trip to Helena to see author Neil Gaiman in person at the Montana Library Association’s annual convention. The English writer, who’s behind such graphic novel hits at the “Sandman” series and novels like Good Omens and American Gods, read an unpublished short story and answered audience questions before signing books–and yes, I got my copy of Fragile Things autographed.

My impressions… Well, I’ve been a fan of Gaiman ever since picking up an odd anthology of “Sandman” from comic fiend Colby Park, who used to work at the MSU Renne Library with me. From there, it was a short hop to Good Omens, which he coauthored with Terry Pratchett. There was something about their tone that gripped me from the first page. I don’t know what to call it except irreverence; the smallest details, the most mundane wanderings, took on an importance in the story that I’d only imagined. I suppose it had something to do with something Michael Sexson once said during an undergraduate class I took from him: “Digression is the art of storytelling.” When I read that book, I had physical evidence that Sexson was right.

On top of that wonderfully wandering style that incorporates myth and fantasy and reality in a way that few others have done, deconstructing the idea of genre as he goes, Gaiman has a wonderful presence and voice. On a trip, we once listened to an audiobook of him reading a few of his short stories. His charming accent is put to full use in a voice that was created to tell stories. I’ve heard Stephen King’s voice. If King could speak as well as Gaiman, he would transcend fully into godhood for me.

Nothing that Gaiman said was particularly surprising. Many answers seemed canned, like stories he’s told a thousand audiences before. But there’s still something to be said for seeing him in person, standing two feet away from somebody with that sort of imagination, spending $12 on his books. Plus, the guys got about a quarter billion dollars’ worth of movies coming out this year, including Beowulf and Coraline. It’s hot year for him, and I’m glad I got to experience it in person.

Oh, the title of the post: it’s one of two things Gaiman said that I’ll type here. First of all, someone asked him what helped inspire him. Gaiman said that boring places inspire him, and that interesting places were completely worthless for musing. I liked that thought, and I know I’ve experienced something similar when sitting through a few bad plays or movies.

Second, Gaiman recited what he calls “Gaiman’s Law”: If you manage to get a book published, the first thing that you will see when you open up that shiny advance copy is a typographic error.

I hope I get to find out.


Dan Visel at the Institute for the Future of the Book writes about how contemporary and reactionary blogs must be. With blogs, he writes, people check the most recent entries to see what is new. After all, that’s how blogs work. The most recent news gets top billing.

As a result, it’s hard for digital forms of writing to track long-term issues. Visel looks at this through the media coverage of the Iraq War and Virginia Tech killings. Mainstream outlets like the New York Times reported on the killings far more often than on the war during a one week span. This is because, as Visel writes, mainstream media deal best with sharply punctuated events.

Finally, Visel wonders whether our modern forms of writing and media are good enough to track the long-term issues. It’s an interesting question. Our local newspaper recently ran a series of stories dealing with the homeless in Bozeman, Mont. It is a long-term issue that the community is dealing with, but it is also one that has only recently come into the spotlight. The news series was a reaction to recent public concern.

Does that make the homeless situation any less long-term? Not really, but this case is substantially different than mainstream media. Here, the public eye turned toward the homeless problem before the stories were written. The media did not necessarily draw that attention there–it may have helped draw additional attention, but not the first attention. With the New York Times and other mainstream outlets, their choice of what to report can decide where the public’s attention will go.

Accordingly, if the mainstream media reports on only short-term issues, like the Virginia Tech killings, then the attention of those who rely on mainstream media for their news will be focused their as well. And here’s the kicker: people seem to want breaking news. It’s what they’ve come to expect. I have a feeling that this is why we see fewer and fewer major investigative stories on the nightly news or in our newspapers.

Yet another anomaly exists. Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” series. On this show, a reporter chronicles a sting operation aimed at sexual predators who would abuse underage people they met over the Internet. This show is intriguing and addictive. It is also quite popular, if my household is any indication. Certainly, this is a long-term issue. Their results do not make the front page of any paper or Web site, but the show remains popular.

So, television, perhaps with is episodic format, can deal with long-term issues. It would stand to reason, then, that any medium which is periodic (newspapers and magazines too) could also deal well with long-term issues, provided they have a steady readership. This is where I think the Web loses.

Most Web site visitors are sporadic. Their reading patters are ephemeral and inconstant. Sure, they may visit regularly, but how regularly? Every time they remember to go there? Every day? It’s uncertain. Because of this, it is hard for Web sites to maintain steady readership–the kind that would be needed to follow a series of stories over a period of time. Because the attention span on the Web is shorter, the story arcs must be as well.

Form follows function in this case.

More to come on this and other blog issues soon.

Corrupting English

Text messaging is trashing Irish students’ writing, the Irish Department of Education reported. The said “The frequency of errors in grammar and punctuation has become a serious concern” after studying the writing habits of 15-year-olds. They go on: “Text messaging, with its use of phonetic spelling and little or no punctuation, seems to pose a threat to traditional conventions in writing.”

Further, the Irish Times reports, students who have adapted to using text messaging also tend to answer questions in short, terse language rather than “seeing questions as invitations to explore the territory they had studied and to express the breadth and depth of their learning and understanding.”

I could not find the original report on Ireland’s Education Department Web site, so I cannot rightfully comment on how stubborn its writers are being on the issue of grammar. Here’s what I know, however. Languages change, and those changes will initially be seen as corruptions by the purveyors of the older forms. Certainly, SMS language is shorter, terser, and less dependent on grammar; but do not think that it is devoid of expressive power or that, because of its simplicity, it has any less expressive power than Standard Academic English.

Perhaps these students aren’t spending enough time on their grammar lessons. Perhaps SMS language is changing the way we think about questions and answer them. But then again, the students studied were 15 years old. Perhaps they didn’t care. Perhaps they had other things on their minds. Who knows? The fact is, if traditional grammar works better, they will have to use it later in life–in college or business or wherever. If SMS language works and is accepted by those they need to communicate with, they will use it.

We should not necessarily look at SMS as an attack upon English. We should look at it as a new form of expression that is not corrupting our language (as infiltrated by foreign influences as it is already!) but rather increasing its depth and variety.

Thesis Completis

I didn’t let you all know, but the Division of Graduate Studies accepted my thesis. Turns out you don’t need to submit a hard copy of the text. All you do is follow a set of outdated and underdetailed formatting instructions, make a PDF and e-mail it. It’s a little nerve wracking until you get that congratulatory response e-mail.

So what do I do now? Well, things are looking up at the moment. I have a few job possibilities, and then on to doctoral work some time in the next two years. Huzzah for graduate school.

And yes, the blog will continue.


A new Web 2.0 site, Twitter, combines instant messaging with social networking to produce something a bit different from the ordinary. Users on the site can update their status as often as they like, making it known to the world or to their friends. The “twitters” are displayed on a constantly updating social timeline.

Neat, but is it necessary? Perhaps that is the wrong question, since pretty much all Web 2.0 sites are unnecessary. The real question is: do we need this sort of mindless, addictive entertainment? Will it damage our attention spans to have new input thrown at us constantly–short, quick to read input that only leaves us waiting for the next twitter to come our way?

It would be one thing if this were a site featuring constantly updated articles or essays, but it is a site with lexias that are designed to be read and discarded. The reader is encouraged to endlessly await new deliveries without thought or reflection. Is this even reading?

Of course, Twitter isn’t asking you to read. It isn’t asking you to reflect deeply. Twitter aims, like most good media do, at transparency. You are invited to ignore the structure of the site, to ignore the way text comes to you. You are asked to focus solely on the text itself. It’s a shame too, because in this case, I think the delivery method is highly interesting.

I’m interested in this new phenomenon: the spectator Web. A recent article in the Guardian, which I’ll post on later, referred to how blogs have invited less creativity and more watching and waiting. The users of Web 2.0 have become a society of audience members, not performers or artists, the article implies. I wonder if this is true. If the Web 2.0 is supposed to be a reflection of society (as all good art is also supposed to be), then weren’t we already a society of spectators?

Maybe Web 2.0 apps like Twitter just amplify that, make it easier to watch and wait for something else to happen.