Watched Over By the Loving Grace of the Computational Engine: Mechanical Turks, Deconstructing Penguins and the Delayed Gratification Climax

By Paul Brown

 Foreword
A profession requiring specialized techniques and training

Part of the bargain struck in a Rangiora café with Sally back on January 1, was that requiring the composition of a second blog post as part of our joint 1Q84 Reading Map project. (He’s a lucky guy who has a project manager as a girlfriend, one who can keep him from slipping into slovenly Saturday and Sunday sequences spent channel grazing between Sky Sport 1, Sky Sport 2, Sky Sport 3 and ESPN. Yeah, now that would be a wasted life!)

A wee while back I completed my magnificent man-reading-project for the year and finished Murakami’s partly flawed Magnus opus, 1Q84. (By the way, the final score in this novel was: ‘Deformed ears’ 1, ‘Ear sex’ nil). And in the process of traversing its 925 pages, 1,000 sticky notes were slayed.

But my ambition for this post is not to offer an interrogation of the means of reading map production, nor a deconstruction of 1Q84 itself (that will come later as the conjoined twin when ‘His’ 1Q84 reading map is finally released); rather it is to present a sampler of three critical foundation-level underpinnings for libraries seeking to understand further why their engagement with this vital readers’ advisory tool is the ultimate expression of the best libraries have to offer their reading communities.

You will no doubt be familiar with my previous rants on this topic; libraries laying claim to offering exemplary readers’ advisory (and that would be readers’ advisory 21st Century-style, not the narrow-task focused-and-excruciatingly-painful-one-book-recommendation-at-a-time-hangover-from-the-1970s-1980s-and-1990s-thank-you-very-bleeding-much) had better lead me to their suite of online reading maps. Of course, such a commitment to overhauling communities reading experiences demands of our profession specialist techniques and training. The experiential incline is a steep one to be sure, but it has always been our mission to do the ‘heavy lifting’ for society’s benefit, so nothing has changed.

There is no ‘Option’ box to tick here. In the words of the Duke:

“I’ve come to deliver kick a** readers’ advisory, and chew gum… and I’m all out of gum.”
“I’ve come to deliver kick a** readers’ advisory, and chew gum… and I’m all out of gum.”

Book 1
Things that most readers have never seen before’

Readers’ advisors are the ‘new’ computational engines for 21st Century reading pleasures and entertainments, employing associative creativity to re-engineer wondrous connections across the imaginative story-telling vessels housed in libraries collections. Er, yeah, that about sums it up!

Festooned with an array of algorithmic-infused data sources, lazy librarianship rarely leaves safe harbour, preferring instead to rely on mechanically manufactured reading suggestions to satiate public demand for the next Lee Child, or Fifty Shades of Grey read alike. Boring and… massive fail.

As Steven Rosenbaum explains (in ‘Curation Nation’), “No longer is the algorithm in charge. Human curators have become essential software.”1 ‘Search’ is broken in that computers possess an inbuilt delimiter: they can scan data (albeit quickly) but are devoid of engineering associations based on the ‘meaning’ of that data, bereft of value judgements and incapable of forging serendipitous connections. It is the human filter (read ‘librarian’) which places context around content and by such means design aggregated, and personalised, information rich packages (read ‘reading maps’).

Or, as ‘Forbes’ journalist and technologist Esther Dyson states, topics are easy for computers to identify, but not meaning, and “quality is much harder”.2

These curated slices of high-value reading experiences comprise the DNA of reading maps; presenting a remix, “… a unique blend of discovered, contributed, and created content that makes your collection uniquely yours.”3 And yet they remain things that most readers have never seen before.

turk

The Man vs. Machine debate is not new of course. In the late 18th Century a nobleman astounded Europe by building a mechanical chess playing automaton that beat every human opponent willing to take up the challenge of trying to defeat it (including a Mr Napoleon Bonaparte). The machine was known as ‘The Turk’.

And the secret to the success of this mechanical Turk? Well, it was the concealment of a chess master sitting within the device. Yes, it was a trick, but now in the 21st century, libraries can remix and reclaim mastery of the reading habit with their very own ‘Mechanical Turkers’; readers’ advisors, delighting audiences with their truly amazing reading maps.

Book 2
One aspect of my transformation’

Employing the reader-as-story-detective strategy, husband and wife team, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, explore literature with children in their parent-child reading groups; specifically, by empowering them to identify the clues which then unlock the ‘hidden’ message(s) residing within the story. As the couple explain: “Books are like puzzles… every work of fiction is actually a mystery. A skilled writer will lay out this mystery like a trail of breadcrumbs – visible enough to keep the reader following along, but not so visible as to make it too easy.”4

What is at work here is the development of critical reading (and thinking) skills, navigating below the surface of the story (i.e. the ‘stuff’ that happens) to the essential messages and/or themes positioned just out of sight, but detectable through closer examination of the clues deliberately ingratiated into the narrative by the author.

No one less than readers’ advisory guru, Neal Wyatt, echoes similar sentiments with her affirmation that “Readers go to a book because of its subject, but they stay for everything else.”5

So riddle me this librarians: who better than us to identify the DNA of all those “everything else’s” in literary works, and then engineer even greater reading universes around them?

This is an essential approach for the readers’ advisory team deconstructing a particular text in order to produce a reading map, based around its identifiable literary elements. It represents a de-codification of the text and reading not just the story, but searching for clues within it. By such means can connections be forged with other books (not yielded by a perfunctory search employing an algorithm as tour guide) and content assembled from multiple sources to form a fresh,unique, curated product.

Voila! We are talking the readers’ advisor as ‘Remix Reader’; that mighty entity that sits atop Derek Neighbours ‘Hierarchy of Reading’.

“My dear penguins, we stand on a great threshold!”
“My dear penguins, we stand on a great threshold!”

This has been one aspect of my transformation into a reader who now meets any text as a mystery, a riddle to be solved, whether it be deconstructing a story about penguins in a children’s picture book, or treading like a gumshoe detective through the landscape of 1Q84. It means that for librarians looking for the ‘next big thing’ to challenge (and enthrall) them, a professional undertaking to reimagine themselves as cartographers of works of imagination means they stand on a great threshold.

Book 3
New scenery, new rules’

If I’m being honest, I have frightened some of my peers with my, er, ‘evangelical zeal’ for this contextual readers’ advisory whatsit. (“Repent all ye sinners, and embrace the Context, lest ye be stained with the demise of readers’ advisory faith” Yeah, something like that).

sermon

But if there is a quantum of solace for readers’ advisors (and their managers) then it is this: the production line of reading maps should not witness quantity usurping quality, ensuring that their production should not impact negatively upon already busy workloads (following the negotiation of a reasonable compromise; after all, these products will represent the apogee of a library’s readers’ advisory output with tremendous benefit for its reading communities). This is the realm of ‘Delayed Gratification’, taking the time to do a job worth doing, and doing it to our highest professional standards. Even the arguable centre of the reading map universe, Berwyn Public Library (Illinois), manufactures just eight reading maps per year; such is the depth of exploration, attention to detail, composition, and high production values, demanded of such projects.

Unlike the rapidity of other service deliverables, reading maps comprise new scenery, new rules, in the readers’ advisory toolkit. Fortunately, they arrive with their own exemption clauses from the usual promulgation of library ‘stuff’ for reading publics.

For such reasons I embrace the philosophy of a slightly rebellious magazine entitled, well gee whizz, will you look at that, it’s called ‘Delayed Gratification’!!! Launched in January 2011, this publication takes the opposite approach to the instantaneousness of mainstream media: “You can’t fall out of fashion if you were never in fashion. As other media companies seek to get faster and faster in delivering the news, we are content to give the final analysis rather than the first, kneejerk reaction. By refusing to play the game, you are released from its rules.”6

Akin to the ‘slow journalism’ approach of the quarterly news journal, reading maps are not designed to be served up with an expiry date and instant obsolescence measured in Twitter-time. Instead they represent a unique service provision for reading audiences who may otherwise be exposed to (and possibly exhausted by) the never ending 24 hour cycle of communications which saturate their lives with data, but less often with meaning, relevance and some kind of semi-permanence.

If we are estimating the aesthetic and informational value of these readers’ advisory products, then we can do little better than judge them against the success factors deemed worthy by Delayed Gratification: “Slow Journalism is dedicated to taking time to produce something of quality. Unlike most media organisations, we don’t spend our days trying to beat Twitter to the chase. Instead, we allow journalists and editors the time to do what they do best: canvass expert opinion, sift evidence, gain perspective and deliver the final analysis on stories. Delayed Gratification is a unique, quirky, good-looking publication that’s designed to be collected and treasured. In a world that’s constantly speeding up, we are proud to be ‘last to breaking news”.7

Adopting this mantra, then the design and release of reading maps should naturally comprise taking the time to do what we do best, offering expert opinion, sifting evidence, delivering analysis, and offering up something that’s designed to be treasured. Surely, there can be no better climatic finale for reading audiences than anticipating, then receiving, these magnificent reading-focused gifts from their library for their very own delayed gratification?

Afterword
The next time we meet, I’ll bring my reading map with me,” said Paul.
Ho ho,” said the keeper of the beat
Ho ho,” the six other Little People joined in.

 

References

1 Steven Rosenbaum, Curation Nation. Why the Future of Content is Context. How to Win in a World Where Consumers are Creators, McGraw Hill, New York, 2011, p12
2 ibid, p219
3 ibid, p91
4 Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Deconstructing Penguins. Parents, Kids and the Bond of Reading, Ballantine Books, New York, 2005, p16
5 Neal Wyatt, The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Non Fiction, ALA, Chicago, 2007, p8
6 Rob Orchard, ‘Swim Against the Tide
7 http://www.dgquarterly.com/what-we-do

Note

The section headings for this blog post are taken verbatim from the following chapters of 1Q84 (and ‘well done’ to the smarties who instantly recognised this).

Foreword – Chapter 5 (Book 1)
Book 1 – Chapter 14 (Book 1)
Book 2 – Chapter 20 (Book 3)
Book 3 – Chapter 9 (Book 1)

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2 Comments

  1. megingle says:

    Loved this post 🙂 Can’t wait to see PB’s response, another reading map, and more slow journalism. I’m still not game to tackle 1Q84, but maybe I’ll try it again one day.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Berwyn’s online maps do look good. They do take time to do well, but the experience is invaluable.

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