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The AALL Spectrum® Blog is published by the American Association of Law Libraries. Submissions from AALL members and other members of the legal community are highly encouraged. Opinions and editorial views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of AALL. AALL does not assume any responsibility for statements advanced by contributors. Previously, the AALL Spectrum Blog was located at aallspectrum.wordpress.com.
10/11/2015 3:16:17 PM

A Review of "The Poetics of Information Overload" by Paul Stephens

Stephens, Paul. The Poetics of Information Overload. Univ. Minnesota Press, 240 pages, 25.00 (Paper). ISBN 978-0-8166-9441-9

You should not buy this book for your law library, but you may want to read this book if you enjoy the avant-garde.  I enjoy the avant-garde, but I picked up this book because I optimistically thought it may be of interest to librarians or copyright scholars. The book’s value for these fields is tenuous, at best, even though information overload is an important topic for librarians (i.e. patrons are constantly bombarded with an abundance of information in their research) and it discusses a literary field made distinct by its use of appropriation. The Poetics of Information Overload focuses on a number of works of American modernism, discussing how the authors of those works deal with information overload. While connected by the theme of information overload, the chapters felt disconnected and did not attempt to provide solutions.

Lack of “law” notwithstanding,* there are number of references to libraries and areas relevance to libraries, such as preserving history; it poses questions such as “what information needs to be stored,” however doesn’t attempt to answer them. For information professionals, then, this book’s value may be in how these references are presented. To see how those outside our field understand it. I found the tone of the work to be, at times, critical of libraries, perhaps because libraries, as stewards of information, reach into the past; the modernists, in contrast, wish to live in the moment. Where libraries are not directly critiqued, they are often by proxy, simply by alleging the profusion of information obstructs knowledge. Stephens points out that what frustrates the modernists is the abundance of history and that, with less and less places untapped by people, unique discovery is becoming a rarity.

In discussing Gertrude Stein, Stephens writes, “Stein was concerned that the expansion of organizational knowledge threatened individualism” (pg. 47). If this were true, libraries would be ironic institutions indeed. Stephens discusses how Stein wanted to create the sense of a continuous present in a reader’s minds. Relatedly, he shows how her works demonstrate the concept of attentive inattentiveness, or continuous partial attention—without focusing on anything, keeping tabs on everything—a more in depth exploration of this topic may have been of utility to librarians. Part of the job of the reference librarian is being interrupted, and I believe “continuous partial attention” is a skill vital to our success. Other concepts of interest are discussed, such as “infinite reading machines” (accessible to all, directly into the reader’s minds) and the futility of cataloging because of over information and the endlessness of cross-referencing, and these discussions might be of interest to information professionals, but I did not find that they were discussed in a meaningful way.

I found that the sixth chapter, “Vanguard Total Index: Conceptual Writing, Information Asymmetry, and the Data Glut,” contained the most relevant information for our field. It specifically concerned conceptual writing in the form of an index. Stephens writes that “restructuring and reframing aggregate data” raises questions regarding “privacy, authenticity, identity, and information asymmetry” (pg. 154). Indexes accumulate data as it comes, while containing its creators’ values and biases, and conceptual writing renews conversations on how we categorize. Summarized by Marjorie Perloff, “only by adopting the language of the library and the database—the language of facts, dates, historical ledger, map, dictionary, biographical entry, literary quotation—can the contemporary poet create what is paradoxically a new poetic sphere, citing Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 11. By collecting interesting excerpts such as this, Stephens is at his best as a bibliographer.

* Admittedly the law did pop its head a couple times in ways that may be of interest to those in the Law and Literature field. Stephens describes 1. a poem that uses a Montana Supreme Court opinion dealing with privacy to show that one cannot escape government and corporate data systems (pg. 171) and 2. Vanessa Place’s “Statement of Facts,” the work of a criminal appellate attorney who specializes in defending sex offenders, which raises questions about the objectivity of legal narratives (pg. 173).


Reviewed by Justin Abbasi, M.L.I.S. candidate at the University of Washington, Law Library Intern at the Gallagher Law Library, and Adjunct Law Librarian at the Seattle University Law Library.

Posted By Justin Abbasi at 10/11/2015 3:16:17 PM  0 Comments
10/7/2015 4:14:41 PM

AALL Lexis/Nexis Call for Papers!

Posted By Catherine Lemmer at 10/7/2015 4:14:41 PM  0 Comments
8/20/2015 3:02:20 PM

The Very Model of a Modern Law Librarian

During a recent interview with a candidate for a reference librarian position, the interviewee said he hoped to learn how to be a full-fledged law librarian.  I replied, "If you work here, you'll become the very model of a modern law librarian."

After the interview, I checked the internet and found that I'm not the first law librarian to come up with this Gilbert and Sullivan reference.  See Jean-Paul Vivian, ALLUNY Newsletter, Vol. 32, Issue 3 (Sept. 2007) at 16, http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/alluny/2007-03fall.pdf ("I am the very model of a modern court librarian...").  Other kinds of librarians have also had a go at this ditty.  See Jeanette C. Smith, The Laughing Librarian: A History of American Library Humor 77 (2012), https://books.google.com/books?id=BbBl25f6s4gC&pg=PA77 ("An Up-to-Date Librarian"; "A Modern Map Librarian"; etc.).

I wondered: what is the model of a modern law librarian?  I started to look for an answer by considering the model of a modern major-general.  It's been a while since I've seen or heard "The Pirates of Penzance"; so I again turned to the all-knowing internet.

The lyrics to "The Major-General's Song" tell of someone with historical and academic knowledge but not so much understanding of what a major-general must do.  Spoiler alert – here's how the song ends:

For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

I think you'll agree that historical and academic knowledge is very important, but not sufficient by itself, for the modern law librarian.  A law librarian must also keep up with and implement current best (or at least good!) practices.  Having knowledge and being "plucky and adventury" can help in the implementation; but sound strategy and tactics are also necessary.

Of course there is no one "modern law librarian."  Law librarians differ in setting (academic, law firm, county, outside a traditional library, etc.), job description, size of library and staff, etc.  But aren't there some aspects – certain key attitudes and abilities – that essentially all legal information professionals should and (I hope and believe) do have in common?

Law librarians strive to save the time of patrons -- that's one of the Library Laws, and not just for law libraries.  We make the best plans we can (on the fly when faced with an immediate challenge, or in a considered way when planning for the longer term), execute the plans, and revise as needed.  We seek to communicate well, whether in speaking, in writing, or via PowerPoint or Excel or other software.  We have at least some knowledge of the law and, more important I think, about where legal information is published.  In this day and age, we must certainly have an interest in and some facility with the internet.  And it would probably help if we like books and other documents, especially relating to law.

What do you think?  In your view, is there a model of a modern law librarian?  If so, what (or who) is that model?  I'd welcome your comments, whether in prose or verse.

Posted By Scott Frey at 8/20/2015 3:02:20 PM  0 Comments