The Madison Boulder, at 85’ x 37’ x 23’ the largest glacial erratic in North America. It’s big!

Mourinho, hands in pockets, trudging through a field of soap bubbles.

a sea serpent for the campus pond, that’ll help admissions

What passed for fun in the Eastern Townships, circa 1875.

(Source: Little, J. I. “A Wilderness Boyhood: The Lake Megantic Memories of James S. Ramage, 1868-82.” JETS/RECE 28 (2006): 5-22.)

Ishii vs. Ibushi. Who knew Kota could brawl like that?

I was, I thought, ahead of schedule in prepping my US history survey course, spending the morning adding weekly readings from the American Yawp to the syllabus. Then I saw the Stanford UP edition is coming next week.

Converting PDF files for use with LiquidText

I’ve begun to use an iPad to annotate pdf files. Many apps let you highlight text and write comments that can be extracted as a text file. Currently I’m using LiquidText, but there are many other options.

On files created from Word documents this works great. But if I’m working with an older pdf – say, one from JSTOR – it’s painful to use. The OCR layer doesn’t line up exactly with the visible text layer, so that as you try to highlight the visible text the selection is actually set off somewhat, and individual words are highlighted instead of a straight passage. Here’s an example from Shari J. Stenberg, “Liberation Theology and Liberatory Pedagogies: Renewing the Dialogue” (2006):

The Stenberg article was also large – 6.1 MB for a 21-page piece. I’m getting near the 2 GB limit on my paid Zotero account, and would rather not upgrade to the next level until I really need to. So I decided to see if I could use Adobe Acrobat to reduce the size of the document, and to run a new OCR scan that would allow me to more easily highlight and otherwise mark passages.

The process was simpler than I thought it would be. I opened the file in Acrobat and went to Tools –> Optimize Scanned PDF –> Optimize Scanned Pages. I tested several different settings but found that the defaults worked best:

The process took 2-3 minutes on my 21-page, 6.1 MB file. The resulting file was one-twelfth the size: 480 KB. But was the OCR improved?

Yes! It was much easier to highlight passages, and the highlights look much better on the page.

P.S. On another PDF that was 53 MB but didn’t have the offset OCR problem, when I tried “Optimize Scanned Pages,” it returned an error because the pages were already rendered. But just using “Reduce File Size” with default options brought the file size down to 7 MB.

Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works: The Importance of Place

Chambliss and Takacs rely on sociologist Randall Collins’s theory of “how emotionally bonded groups come to exist.” What struck me is how material the theory is – how it’s not just institutions in the abstract, but the physical spaces themselves, that contribute to a sense of belonging. The best example in How College Works is Hamilton’s Science Center. Yet the emotional bonding that takes place at the Science Center is in part due to a sense of exclusivity, and is thus in tension with the inclusivity valued by critical librarianship.

Even within a selective liberal arts college like Hamilton, the sciences are seen a further narrowing of the field. Science majors regard themselves as an elite. They come better prepared from their high schools and take harder courses in college. (The authors, themselves social scientists, believe that natural science courses really are more rigorous than those in other departments). Yet the result is that women are underrepresented. They’re less likely to tolerate poor introductory teachers and leave for other majors. Students with less preparation from high school, disproportionately minorities, are at a disadvantage. Moreover, science is increasingly taught via research-based education, which may be better for future scientists but not for the majority of students. In short, the authors see a rigorous science education as a good thing, and something that should be available to more than a relatively small, self-selected share of students (119-126).

Collins argues that there are four requirements necessary for a “dynamics of belonging,” all of which are present within the sciences at Hamilton. The Science Center, and its many labs and classrooms designed for different disciplines, provide for the physical copresence of people.1 Lab experiments and activities make for a shared focus of attention, and for ritualized common activities. And the Science Center’s existence, set off from the rest of the college, as well as science students’ perceived status as an elite, give the sciences an exclusivity based on clearly defined boundaries (79-81).

The Writing Center, in contrast, gives up some of the exclusivity of the sciences for a deeper integration across the college. It still maintains a particular status because of the importance of writing at the college. The student tutors at the Writing Center meet peers from across the disparate subcommunities on the campus and thuse are near the center of the larger social network amont Hamilton students — thus reinforcing the curricular primacy of writing at the college.

The Science Center and the Writing Center together point to ways libraries should consider their physical space. Libraries can, like the Science Center, fulfill Collins’s four requirements for a dynamics of belonging. The library allows for physical copresence with one’s peers. The work done at the library forms a ritualized common activity. And those students who spend time in the library come to recognize each other and to consider themselves an exclusive set.

This leaves out the second of Collins’s requirements: that there be a shared focus of attention. When considering the library as a study space, there is a tension between this requirement and C&T’s argument that study alone is more effective than in groups. When studying alone, even co-present people have different foci of attention.

But libraries have moved away from their traditional role as a space for concentrated individual study. Instead they emphasize group-friendly additions like lounges, presentation rooms, and the “information commons.” Yet where else can students go for quiet study space? For this is what libraries, better than anyone else, can provide. The library should enable the copresence of peers around the ritualized common activity of concentrated study, in an atmosphere that asserts the importance and the exclusivity of that concentrated study. Surely this is how the physical space of the library can best help college to work.

Other posts in this series:

  1. On Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works
  2. Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works: Teaching and Learning Skills

  1. C&T are, unsurprisingly, not big fans of MOOCs or of online learning in general. 

Browsing matters

There was a moment of serendipity on my Twitter feed today. First, Nnedi Okarafor wrote:

I had to discover African lit on my own by accident at the Michigan State Library. I walked past a wall of books in the stacks...

...An Igbo name (Buchi Emecheta) caught my eye and I stopped and picked up the book. I ended up reading everything on that shelf.

Then, Zeynep Tufeczi penned a paean to the United States’ robust infrastructure, especially things we can take for granted like the post office and the library:

I bit my tongue and did not tell my already suspicious friends that the country was also dotted with libraries that provided books to all patrons free of charge. They wouldn’t believe me anyway since I hadn’t believed it myself. My first time in a library in the United States was very brief: I walked in, looked around, and ran right back out in a panic, certain that I had accidentally used the wrong entrance. Surely, these open stacks full of books were reserved for staff only. I was used to libraries being rare, and their few books inaccessible. To this day, my heart races a bit in a library.

For Tufeczi, accessible stacks remain a powerful metonym for our infrastructure, while for Okarafor, the serendipity of browsing revealed a previously unthought-of literature.