Monday, May 21, 2012

Is Information Snobby? Is Craft Beer?

The library where I work doesn't do a lot of reader's advisory; we're an academic library with a very limited selection of books that, on average, people read for pleasure instead of scholarship. But I'm hesitant to label this a "public library issue," and move along. Librarians, you should care what gets read. But first, some background, via Andy Woodworth's blog, Agnostic, Maybe. Be sure to check out the comments on those posts; there's a spirited back and forth.

I wrote this in 2008:
Information, and access to it, is a powerful leveling tool.  By teaching patrons to access information, librarians and other library staff make it possible for students from traditionally underserved backgrounds to have the same access to information as more advantaged groups.  This equality of opportunity also plays an important role in civil society and democracy.
Now, we can have an argument about whether or not Twilight is information, and whether or not it contributes at all to civil society. Here's one pro: Benedict Anderson defines nationalism as an "imagined community" in which people who will never meet engage in the same thoughts and same activities and, knowing this, develop feelings of affection and affiliation. In Anderson's argument, these communities are spread and fostered, in large part, based on the rise of the printing press, which disseminates information, including novels, at speeds previously unknown and unheard of. Anderson draws no distinctions, at least in the initial outlay of this argument, between high and low culture, speaking only to "print-capitalism." While the internet has played a role in fragmenting popular culture, take a gander at the Twilight book sales, and you'll see that commonalities are alive and well in the twenty-first century.

I'm comfortable in a world in which all texts are valid, though I'm also comfortable saying some are more valid than others. If Twilight is what gets you reading, then I'm okay with that, because I think of popular fiction as a gateway to something more. Is that snobbish? Maybe. I'm also comfortable being called that name. I have thick skin, and I suppose if the shoe fits....

The concept of something pop, something low or middlebrow as a gateway to something more, something subjectively better, is widely applicable. It's getting warm out, so in particular, wheat beers and witbiers. InBev, which owns Budweiser, makes a wheat beer called Shock Top. You've probably seen it. Miller Coors has Blue Moon. You've definitely seen it. These are gateway beers. They are conscious attempts by large companies to make a beer that is "like" craft. They are not. No matter, though, because these are the beers that will get you into craft beer, such as Allagash White. Who will do this? A good bartender, or, because we are nothing without titles, a beer director, or a friend whose opinion you respect. Such a person will see you with a Blue Moon or Shock Top, and recommend the next level up. I feel comfortable saying that nobody in the history of the world, ever, who has had Allagash White and Blue Moon prefers the latter. And so Blue Moon and its ilk are useful idiots. Yes, there is a teleology here.

And so it is with information. Some information is craft, some is not. Information is better than no information, and craft information is the best information of all. It is my hope that librarians practice craft information to the extent possible at their workplaces and in their lives.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chuck Brown and Information Literacy

Chuck Brown passed away yesterday, Wednesday, May 16th, after a long battle with pneumonia. He's not terribly well-known outside of Washington, DC, though he did have a hit with "Bustin Loose," and invented a style of music known as go-go that doesn't have much appeal outside of DC.

You might recognize this song as the main sample in Nelly's "Hot in Herre."

What does this have to do with information literacy? I've mentioned before that DC and I have a complicated relationship. My place of work educates more graduates of DC public schools than any other private institution of higher learning. If you work in academia, the odds are good that you look like your students, your patrons, your audience. I do not look like the community the library serves, and go-go is my entre, a secret handshake that I use with my students, who see my skin, hear me talk, and might otherwise be skeptical. One of the first questions I get in any one shot session is to tell them a bit about myself. Name-dropping go-go helps me connect with many students. It's a signifier, that even though they took two trains and a bus to get here, even though the (mostly) awful public school system has failed them, even though they might see me and think of me as a structure to be overcome or ignored, we have something in common. And having earned that, it's easier to teach; the learning can begin.

But go-go is not just a tool. The first concert I ever took my five-year old son to was a go-go concert. Why? Because playing go-go is like having type-O negative blood, the universal donor. If you play go-go, you can play anything, and Chuck Brown often did. Jazz, funk, Latin percussion, dub reggae, calypso, R & B, soul, hip hop.... If you're in a go-go band, this is your set list.

For readers of this blog not from DC, here's a go-go primer. By way of introduction, I lead with some songs that are clearly go-go, though the artists might not identify it as such.

Amerie's "1 Thing" was a hit in 2005. While not from DC, though she did spend some time in Virginia during her formative years, though I can't say for certain that's where this sound comes from. Go-go is often referred to as "R & B with a pocket," meaning extra percussion with two or more time signatures, and slowed, stilted beats.

Beyonce and Jay-Z's "Crazy in Love" is perhaps the most popular go-go song of all time, though neither of them would label it as such, the influences are unmistakable.

That's not Jay Z's only foray into go-go. Here he is biting the lyrics to Rare Essence's "Overnight Scenario."

Here's the original, a consensus best song for go-go heads. Rare Essence and Jay Z settled out of court after the former sued the latter.

Here's my favorite go-go song.

Rest in peace, Chuck. Thank you for helping me connect. Thank you for the music.

Monday, May 14, 2012

New Year, New Library: Information Literacy Takeover

I began working here in 2007, four years after my place of work (MPOW) switched from a college to a university. In the time I've been here, the library has not controlled the information literacy program. I repeat: for whatever reason, the library was not in charge of information literacy. The previous director taught it on occasion, but command and control lay elsewhere. I have often said that this place is unique, both for better and for worse. I have now been director of library services for just over 14 months, during which I've attempted to project and restore some sense of normalcy to the library, and I'm pleased to announce that information literacy is back where it belongs, in the library.

One school here has an information literacy requirement, the other schools allow for one-shot classroom instruction, in which a librarian has between 45 and 75 minutes to educate students, and sometimes faculty, on library resources, using Google effectively, and the role(s) of Wikipedia, among other topics. This program has been expanded to our first-year experience, and overall we librarians are doing many more one-shots, but our School of Professional Studies has the big prize: a semester-long, 3-credit course. In short, a normal college course that all must take, and starting in the fall of 2012, half the sections will be taught by librarians, as it should be. The other half will be taught by faculty who will have gone through an information literacy boot camp, taught by me. No longer, one hopes, will I have to bang my head against a desk when a student tells me they can cite an abstract as if they've read the article, or have to correct faculty in front of students, which is always awkward and painful.

How'd I do it? I used a basic template of talking points from the ARCL. To me, information literacy means, in part, teaching people to think like librarians. Who better to do that than a librarian? It also helps that I'm here, on campus, full-time, unlike adjuncts. I know the lay of the land, which gives me a leg up on the particulars of MPOW. Beyond my presence on campus, I've been trying to leave the library more often, building good working relationships with the Dean and Associate Dean of this particular school. They trust me with these car keys because of that. 

Having an entire semester to play with means I can get into transliteracy, social media, and a host of other goodies as well. I haven't taught a class since 2006. If you do something that works in a classroom setting, or in a content/learning management system, like Moodle or Blackboard, with regards to information literacy, I want to hear it. This is going to be fun.

* For the record, Nas over Jay Z. Way over. This song works here, but Jay's twelve best songs aren't as good as Illmatic. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

(The Beer of) Small States in World Markets

In 1985, Cornell political scientist Peter Katzenstein wrote a book with an interesting argument. Katzenstein posited that small states, size referring to a measurement of a domestic economy, need open borders for trade due to small domestic markets and economies. One way to get open borders is to promote free trade. Of course, free trade also means that other countries, and their companies, will have access to the domestic markets of the smaller states, and odds are good, thanks to comparative advantage, that other states and their companies will be able to produce some goods and services more efficiently than the smaller states and their companies. To wit, a large company in a large country makes widgets more efficiently than a company in the smaller country. If these countries trade freely, the company in the smaller country may not survive. The larger company from the larger country will put it out of business. Katzenstein's central argument is that, given this, smaller states need robust social welfare safety nets, which commonly include robust unemployment benefits, health care, and free or low cost education, among others. Safety nets are needed because free trade under capitalism is inherently destabilizing. However, safety nets are expensive, which require not only high taxes, but also a grand bargain between labor, the state, and companies, with levels of economic cooperation and coordination that much of this audience (e.g., Americans) is not used to and suspicious of. This political and economic arrangement is called democratic corporatism, and if the above sounds somewhat familiar, it is because I have just described the oft-maligned social democracies of Europe; in particular, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries. And somehow, this brings us to craft beer.

If you have been following the rise of craft beer, you may have noticed an increasing international bent to tap and bottle lists, from breweries like Nogne O (Norway), Mikkeller (Denmark), De Molen (The Netherlands), and Baladin (Italy), among others. These breweries have created what Joe Stange terms a "postmodern, transnational craft beer scene," and they've done it in large part thanks to the principles that Katzenstein has written about. These, and other, breweries make beer for export markets, often collaborating with brewers from the US (Stillwater fits into this category as well), which is where the "trans-" suffix comes from. In order to get their beers noticed abroad, these brewers need to stand out, and by and large they have done so by making some unusual beers, with a healthy disrespect for traditional beer styles, or at least the styles dominant in the small domestic market.

For example, in 2009 Nogne O shipped 65% of its 8,000 barrels of beer to markets outside Norway, across twenty countries. In Washington, DC one can find a bottle of Nogne O for about $10. That same bottle will cost upwards of $20 in Norway, where it is made (source). Nogne O's founders explicitly looked to the US for guidance on craft beer trends, and looked down on what was available in Norway. It seems that Norwegians noticed good beer leaving their shores, because in 2011 only 25% of Nogne O's output was exported, a dramatic decrease (same source).

To make beer for export one must cater to the American beer geek, who, in turn, has rewarded these breweries. Danish brewery Mikkeller is perhaps most well-known for a coffee-infused stout, in which the coffee beans used first passed through the digestive system of a civet, a southeast Asian cat-like creature. In 2008, Ratebeer's predominantly American users ranked Belgium's de Struise, famed for a series of barrel-aged stouts, as the top brewery in the world.
The rejections of adjunct-addled domestic lagers and absences of strong craft brewing traditions have allowed for a robust culture of experimentation in many of these states. Knowing that one will not move a large amount of beer domestically has been a boon to brewers in countries like Italy, where Birra Del Borgo cannot sell many bottles of Dodici 25, a barleywine-style ale scented with orange peels, to a populace weened on wine and amaro.

Belgium, with a rich, perhaps the richest, tradition of brewing, and ethnic cleavages between French- and Dutch-speaking populations that have lead to something like ethnic democratic corporatism, albeit with limited success, is not exempt from this discussion, as newer breweries like de Struise and Alvinne make beer for the US market, perhaps at the expense of a sense of place, of terroir. "There are a couple brewers in Belgium who are making beer for Americans. We’re interested in Belgium, we’re interested in their traditions," [importer Don] Feinberg says. "There are certain flavors that are true to a type of culture, and if you don’t believe that, you’re one step away from making soda."
Great beers in any style can now be made in any place. But to the extent that they don’t come from their own soils and land and brewed with love for their own people, they can only offer flavor plus the facsimile of a cultural experience. And while there is a lot of talk about an emerging global culture, I don’t know what it tastes like. I want to have as real a relationship as I can with as real a culture. And I will continue to seek out and fight for the beers of Terroir that represent cultures I do know, understand and love (source). 
Yet as the Nogne O example above shows, we may be moving past this discussion of place. Norwegians who want good beer now have more Nogne O on the shelves. As Stan Hieronymus has pointed out, and apologies while I hunt for his exact words, with some time a De Molen saison may impart a sense of place on the person drinking it, creating a Dutch saison as opposed to copying a Belgian one.

The likely audience of this post, much like the beers discussed above, is American. Beer is being made for us. Good beer, at that. Be flattered, as the tastes of the American beer geek are exported as well. We live in interesting times.

Civet pic via Wikipedia.
Katzentstein's book cover from Google Books, linked above.