Finding Hope in a Haystack

13 Sep

[Before I was a librarian, before I was an exercise physiologist, I was a minister. I was recently asked, after many years, to serve as a guest preacher one Sunday. I would usually share this on my non-library-related blog, but as the subject came from my day-to-day work in scholarly communications and data, I thought some followers of this blog might find it of interest.

The scripture referenced is Proverbs 1:20-33. The sermon was delivered on September 12, 2021 at First Baptist Church, Worcester, MA. A recording of the service can be found on the Church’s website and/or Facebook page.]

When Brent first asked me if I would consider giving a sermon here this morning, I thanked him, told him I was very touched and humbled that he’d consider me, but said I didn’t think it was a very good idea. I haven’t preached a sermon in a very long time. Eight years, to be exact. I’ve not been to church in a good while, either. I struggle with reconciling a lot of the things I once believed about God and faith and Christianity, with what I believe about the world today. I struggle with Church. Capital “C” church. The institution of it. Organized religion. I shared all of this with Brent and he, in his very pastoral way, assured me that all of this is okay. And he convinced me that perhaps, just perhaps, I might still have something to share from this place.

Once I said yes, of course, I was stuck. I’ve been a librarian for a very long time. Now I found myself struggling over different things – wondering what the heck do I do in my day-to-day life that I could possibly translate into something you might find relatable, meaningful, or especially inspiring for a sermon. But then, lying in bed one night a couple weeks back, I got to looking at the books in my bedroom and I thought of something I’d read in a book called, Living in Data: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Information Future by the engineer, artist, computer programmer, National Geographic Explorer, and really wonderful storyteller, Jer Thorp. I highly recommend this book and I’ll reference it throughout these thoughts this morning. But lying in bed, I thought of the opening to the second chapter of the book. It reads:

Open the window and let the words in. Let them flow into the room in a stream, all of the words, hundreds of thousands of them, let them fill the space, let them hang in the air, tiny sparkling motes of language.

And the next morning I got up and counted the number of books in my room.

There are 318 books in my bedroom. It’s not an unruly number – really! – and while there are a few stacks of them by my bed and on a dresser, most are neatly arranged in a bookcase and on a couple of shelves on the wall. The shortest one is 13 pages long. A Prairie Dog’s Life.  The longest is a 2,000-plus page anthology of English literature. They probably average out though, as a whole, to around 300 pages. Estimating about 350 words to a page, that’s 33,390,000 words hanging out in my room. And this is just my bedroom. I could add to it all of the books in my home, in my office, in my Little Free Library outside of my house. And then multiply all of those out. Think about how many ideas these words generate; how many characters, real and imagined; how many interactions; how many emotions; how many more words they give rise to. They expand and expand and expand. Infinite. 

Did you know that the word “data” comes from Latin where it meant, “a thing given, a gift delivered or sent”? Early in its appearance in the English language, it is tied to the fields of mathematics and theology. All the way back in 1614, a clergyman named Thomas Tuke called the Sacraments Data. With a capital “D”. Divinely given.  

Today, of course, we think of data as numbers, words, bits and bytes, stuff collected in notebooks or spreadsheets, crunched by computers, analyzed and visualized. We don’t think of it as divine. 

Or do we?

I receive a weekly newsletter from Educause, a nonprofit association whose mission is “to advance higher education through the use of information technology”. In an article last week, I read this sentence:

From improving student success to forming optimal strategies that can maximize corporate and foundational relationships, data analytics is now higher education’s divining rod.

Interesting description, wouldn’t you say? Divining, dowsing, doodlebugging – that pseudoscience where a stick – a divining rod – leads you to water, the biological requirement for life. Data analytics is now perceived as what will lead us to our life source.

That sure makes data sound divine to me. It sounds just like the thing that’s going to save us. And it’s hardly slick marketing for a certain college major or field of study. There’s real evidence all around us of the downright amazing – some might say miraculous – outcomes of harnessing big data. 

The National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI, is part of the National Library of Medicine at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. One of the many things that NCBI does, as part of the Library of Medicine, is build, host, and manage a series of biomedical databases, including PubMed, one of the world’s largest bibliographic databases – a free resource to citations and abstracts in life sciences and biomedical literature. Since November 17, 2019, when the first case of the novel coronavirus we now know so well as COVID-19 was reported (just shy of 22 months ago), 175,593 peer-reviewed, published research articles on COVID-19 have been indexed in PubMed. The full-text versions of more than 200,000 articles are freely available via the public access site, PubMed Central. About 1.4 million nucleotide records have been uploaded and made available, along with a million sequence-related records. 317 articles on COVID-19 have been written by researchers just down the road at UMass Medical School, where I work. We house the full text of these in my library’s institutional repository and as of yesterday morning, those 317 papers had been downloaded more than 30,000 times by people all over the world. 

It is this unprecedented open sharing of information and data that allowed us to watch science unfold over the past year at a pace hardly ever seen. The biomedical research community, worldwide, developed multiple vaccines to fight COVID with an effectiveness unheard of before. These vaccines were developed, tested, trialed, and delivered in a 12-month time period. Amazing. Miraculous. Divine?

There is no doubt that many see the hand of God at work in all of this. If you believe that God grants us with gifts – with skills and knowledge and wisdom – to create and use all of these towards the betterment of the world, then yes, divine. Data is divine. A gift from God.

But. That’s a bit easy, isn’t it? A bit simple. 

In his book, The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope, Daniel Greene defines and traces what he calls “the access doctrine,” a belief born out of the technology boom of the 1990s, where it seemed almost common sense that all one really needed to enter into the new information economy was access – access to technology (think the “laptop for every child” programs), access to the Internet (think broadband expansion), access to tech education (think charter schools and diploma programs with a hard focus on students’ use of and proficiency in different types of software and technology). Public libraries in particular have played a big role in propagating this promise. Holding true to their own belief that they exist to freely provide access to information, they were one of the first institutions to make computers freely available to the public.

Unfortunately, as Greene describes in his book, this promise has fallen short. Technology is a simple solution to the vastly complex problem of inequality. But like data, it’s a simple sell. And this simple selling of information and technology and data as some kind of commonsense cure to everything is powerful. It IS power. Much in the same way that the selling of a simplified idea of God or of faith or of religion is power.

Joel Osteen or Bill Gates, you may have vastly different opinions of these two powerful men, but they are strikingly similar in that they each preach a simple message with unwavering conviction. For Osteen it’s that a belief in God will grant one every bit of peace and prosperity. For Gates it’s the belief that every problem – from access to vaccines to climate change – can be solved via some form of technological invention – or intervention – almost always one that will generate the data, the information, the knowledge, and ultimately, the solution. It’s a great hope.

And data as a great hope starts to sound an awful lot like what we think of as religious faith. It holds in our minds and in our hearts this unfettered sense, this belief, that somehow, someway, somewhere within it is the key. The solution. The answer. To everything.  If we can only write the right algorithm, if we can only spot the trends, the patterns, then what we once didn’t know, well, now we will. It harkens right back to its Latin origins that data is something out there already – just like God – something given, something true. We just have to see it and recognize it. The truth that is already there. 

Simple. Powerful. Comforting, even.

But the concept that both ideas, data and religious faith, leaves out is a central and crucial one – that they are humanly constructed. As an aside, I’m not positing that God is a human construction. That’s an entirely different argument. But faith – what people believe and, to an extension, how they act on those beliefs – is certainly all tied up in the limits of what we can and do construct. Just like data.

If you return to NCBI’s SARS-CoV-2 resources web page, the site where I found many of those numbers on publications and genome sequence runs that I mentioned a few minutes ago, you’ll find a link to a resource called LitCovid, “a curated literature hub for tracking up-to-date scientific information about the 2019 novel Coronavirus.” There’s a chart that shows how many publications are added weekly to the database and there’s also a map of the world, shaded to show the countries mentioned in the abstracts of all of these publications. Darker shading means more mentions. No shading means none. The United States and China stand out as the darkest blue. Most of the rest of the world is a slightly lighter shade, but there are some noticeable blank spots – Central America, a few countries in South America, and a large swath of Central and Western Africa. Does no one have COVID in those places? No. Do they lack the expertise and resources for scientific research? In some cases, definitely yes. But why haven’t those with the expertise and resources focused their research on the people in these parts of the world? There are many answers to this question, of course. It’s complex. But it clearly highlights the flaw in that belief that data is this objectively, unbiased entity that need only be collected and curated and analyzed to bring us the solutions to our problems. 

There is a chapter in Living in Data called “Data’s Dark Matter” and in it, Jer Thorp tells another story that highlights the limitations of data, even when one is trying their very best to avoid them. In 2009, he wrote a pair of algorithms to determine the placement of the almost 3,000 names of those killed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centers – what would be a significant part of the 9/11 Memorial. The designers were seeking what they called “meaningful adjacencies” – people related to one another, people who worked together. This is a mathematical problem that I cannot begin to fathom solving, let alone solve it. But Thorp did – at least to some degree. He admits his own shortcomings – or better put, the shortcomings of any data-driven solution – in this story:

Even in the meaningful adjacencies that my algorithm dutifully satisfied, there is much missing. Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a Pakistani American scientist and NYPD cadet who, like so many other first responders, rushed to the scene on September 11 determined to help. Like so many other first responders, he was killed. Hamdani’s name is inscribed on a parapet on the south pool of the memorial, on the very last panel dedicated to the victims who were killed in World Trade Center South. The algorithm placed Hamdani there, in part because there were no meaningful adjacencies recorded, no other names indicated by the data set for his name to sit beside. Why was this man, a police officer in training, not placed alongside the other first responders? According to memorial officials, Hamdani was not included with the other police officers because he wasn’t on active duty, an explanation that sits at odds with the fact that he was given a police funeral with full honors by the NYPD. We can find a more likely answer in a headline from the “New York Post” on October 12, 2001: “Missing – or Hiding? – Mystery of NYPD Cadet from Pakistan.”

Thorp’s algorithm could only run on the data he was provided. Data constructed by humans – from human stories, human reports, human experiences, and human biases. Sadly, but truthfully, also from human hatred, human fear, and human denial.

The artist and data scientist Mimi Onuoha created a mixed-media installation in 2016 entitled The Library of Missing Datasets. It is a white file cabinet filled with labeled, yet empty, file folders. In her artist’s statement on her website (you can see pictures of the piece there, along with photographs of the 2018 installation, The Library of Missing Datasets, 2.0) she says: 

“The Library of Missing Datasets” is a physical repository of those things that have been excluded in a society where so much is collected. “Missing data sets” are the blank spots that exist in spaces that are otherwise data-saturated. Wherever large amounts of data are collected, there are often empty spaces where no data live. The word “missing” is inherently normative. It implies both a lack and an ought: something does not exist, but it should. That which should be somewhere is not in its expected place; an established system is disrupted by distinct absence. That which we ignore reveals more than what we give our attention to. It’s in these things that we find cultural and colloquial hints of what is deemed important. Spots that we’ve left blank reveal our hidden social biases and indifferences.

Some examples of missing datasets in Onuoha’s piece include:

  • People excluded from public housing because of criminal records
  • Trans people killed or injured in instances of hate crime
  • Poverty and employment statistics that include people who are behind bars
  • Muslim mosques/communities surveilled by the FBI/CIA
  • Mobility for older adults with physical disabilities or cognitive impairments
  • LGBT older adults discriminated against in housing
  • Undocumented immigrants currently incarcerated and/or underpaid
  • Firm statistics on how often police arrest women for making false rape reports
  • Master database that details if/which Americans are registered to vote in multiple states

There are many more. Fortunately, one now-former missing dataset, thanks to the efforts of multiple citizen-led data collection projects around the US, is “Civilians killed in encounters with police or law enforcement agencies”. In 2015, when she began collecting the missing datasets for her piece, this wasn’t the case. 2015. Just 6 short years ago. A small grace from the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder.

The scripture reading this morning from the Book of Proverbs speaks of the wisdom and knowledge of God; from God’s mouth comes knowledge and understanding. I believe that the real kernel of wisdom within those words is the reminder to keep searching. Keep seeking knowledge, keep searching for information, keep collecting the data not because we simply haven’t found the right answer yet, but because we don’t yet possess enough of whatever it is that may yield the right answer. It is missing, if it even exists at all.

To my understanding, this is hope. It’s the hope of data, of science, of art, of technology, of education, of human relations, of human society, of all of creation. Perhaps it is a hope for the Church, too. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth that faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love. Me, I’ll take hope, for we can always hope to have faith, even when we have none. We can hope for love, even when there is no love to be found. And we can always hope to be better, even when we are far from it. 


2020: A Hellacious Year Can’t Keep a Good Reader Down

23 Dec

The list of all that I missed thanks to this godawful year is lengthy, but who wants to dwell on all that? One of (several) silver linings it brought was extra time for reading. I’ve become a voracious reader over the past several years – prompted by a fear that I was losing my ability to concentrate as I grew older. Working at home for months, followed by a return to a sparsely-staffed library, meant I found myself with uninterrupted time more often than usual. At first, I found it boring, but then took advantage and I put aside tasks that I was working on, from time to time, and read some great books about scholarly communications, about measuring the impact of research, about data – all things related to my work – along with LOTS of things I just thoroughly enjoyed. I hope you’ve found some treasures to absorb yourself in this year, too. And thanks to the many authors who gave them to us. Here are a bunch that I read:

Work Stuff

I discovered Cassidy Sugimoto via a conference that I attended (virtually, of course) and really enjoyed her keynote. It prompted me to seek out two works she’s involved with on the topic of bibliometrics and measuring the impact of research. I recommend both for those who work in scholarly communications. Speaking of, Rick Anderson’s little primer on scholarly communication is one I could refer to friends and/or family who never really understand what I do as a librarian. Not that they’d find it all that interesting, but…

Stephen Few gave the world one of his usual big books this year. (Literally. He has a thing for large-sized books. The 2020 gift is his work, Signal.) I also found myself tracking down a couple of his “little books.” All involve looking at “big data” with a skeptical eye, something that I find myself doing often. We have certainly seen countless benefits of big data and open science during the global fight against COVID, as well as in vaccine development. We’ve also seen more than a few cautionary tales of the troubles of big data as big noise. A longtime key figure in the data discussion, Few steps up to say “hold on” just a bit. Good wisdom.

Georgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec’s fun companion to their wonderful, Dear Data, from a few years back is good fun. I throw this one in my bag at least every other week to work on one or two of the “assignments.” Data Feminism and Calling Bullshit are two excellent accessible academic reads. They prompt a thousand thoughts and ideas for action.

I’ve read (actually, I own) all of Alberto Cairo’s books on data visualization. His latest was a nice companion to others that I read, in terms of getting better at cutting through all of the noise, the falsehoods, the trivial, the bias thrown at us daily via news bits and misleading graphics. These are all skills we need to have – and that we need to teach – in the current world.

Finally, I read Matt Shipman’s book on scientific writing. Matt works in research communications and media relations at North Carolina State University. True story – our Twitter paths crossed someday, somehow, and in doing so we discovered that we both grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, and spent many, many happy years as kids at the Rodof Sholom branch of the Petersburg Public Library. We’ve become twitter friends over the years and I enjoyed reading this really insightful and handy reference book about the work he does. I learned some things for my own work, too.


If you’re a fan of the Talking Heads, Chris Frantz’s story of love and music will not disappoint. He and Tina Weymouth have remained together through all of the years of art school, of being in a groundbreaking band, of founding their own terrific group, and mentoring/fostering the careers of many others. Great love story.

I’m not sure what led me to Jimmy Webb’s memoir. I’ve long loved his work as a songwriter. After reading his memoir, I honestly think I’ll stick to listening to his songs alone. I’m not sure that I like him much as a person.

Natasha Trethewey and Allison Moorer have written two of the most powerful memoirs you can find. I don’t recommend reading them back-to-back, as I did. They are stories of domestic violence that ends in the worst way, and the long, arduous struggle it takes to rise from such circumstances. Both are brilliant wordsmiths and their stories will last with me for some time.

Book Club

I’m part of a truly great book club. We are a really diverse bunch of readers and it results in me reading lots of things (science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction) that I would never choose on my own. These are a few that quickly popped to mind this morning as I snapped photos from the shelves.

In a word, I LOVED A Gentleman in Moscow. We started it last December and I read it through the darkest weeks of the year. It was the best snuggle-into-bed-and-read-book. A beautiful story. I will read it again. I know I will.

Sy Montgomery’s, The Soul of an Octopus, brought me to tears. Really. It’s such an eye-opening adventure into the world of one of our most amazing creatures. Who knew? There are also dozens of fascinating YouTube videos about octopuses, as well as the beautiful Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher. Year of the Octopus.

We recently read Agatha Christie’s introduction to Hercule Poirot. It was only the second Christie mystery that I’ve ever read (Murder on the Orient Express being the other) and it was pure delight.

The Great Believers is our current pick. I’ll finish it in January, but about a quarter of the way through, highly recommend it. The characters are ones easy to follow. I look forward to how it all comes together.

Re-Reads and More

Allie Brosh returned in 2020 with Solutions and Other Problems. I pre-ordered it, read it the day it arrived, and then had to re-read Hyperbole and a Half. I laughed, I snorted, I cried, I shook my head at her talent. And perseverance.

Another election year and all of the social upheaval we’re experiencing these days (a good bit of it long overdue), found me re-reading Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, as a means of keeping faith in the people of the “fly over” states. It’s also so much better a book than that Hillbilly Elegy. Smarsh is heads and shoulders above J.D. Vance when it comes to both telling a story and understanding humanity.

We are currently reading and discussing Ibram Kendi’s, How to be an Antiracist, as a library staff. It was chosen as the UMMS all-campus read. It is a 2020 read and act book.

The bird lover in me read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s, Mozart’s Starling (perhaps the book that I most enjoyed reading this year) and Jennifer Ackerman’s, The Bird Way. Both of these authors have authored multiple books on nature in general and birds, specifically. And they are always excellent.

And I re-read the Ravenmaster’s lovely memoir while on a camping trip in October. I liked it just as much the second time around.

Finally, I was missing my old friend, Kinsey Millhone, the other evening and I pulled G is for Gumshoe off my shelf. I own A to … sigh … Y in Sue Grafton’s alphabet mystery series. RIP, Sue. I may re-read all of them next year. So good.

So, there you have it. As I said at the start, no shortage of good stuff this year. A few good listens, too:

  • Michael J. Fox, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality
  • Anthony Boudain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2nd time through)
  • Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
  • Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave: The Arthurian Saga, Book 1 (book club pick)
  • James Taylor, Break Shot: My First 21 Years
  • Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation
  • Blair Braverman, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North (I combo-read and listened to this one.)
  • Ani Difranco, No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir (I want to read this, i.e. turn the pages, in 2021.)

What a year it’s been! I wish you all a very happy holiday season and a 2021 filled with good health, good friends, good work, good music, and good reading!

~ Sally

What Goes Around, Comes Around…

13 Oct

At this time last year, meaning the month of October, I was feeling like a real world traveler, spanning the globe from Massachusetts to DC to Edinburgh and Stirling, Scotland, taking in a trio of really thought-provoking meetings in some wonderful venues. It was something and I vowed to myself that I would do my best to do the same, i.e. travel to an international conference, every year for the rest of my professional days. Taking part in conferences and meetings with people from other parts of the world opened my eyes – and my mind – to a whole host of new perspectives. I was inspired.

Well, here we are, a year later – surely one of the strangest years I could imagine – and the same conferences are all taking place. They’re still international in scope and the content is terrific, but alas, like everything else these days, I’m attending them via a screen; zooming in from my home or my office. And like everything else these days, it’s just missing something for me.

All that said, I’m grateful to be well, grateful to be working, and grateful that I have the means to keep on going. I know that too many people all over the world lack this good fortune right now.

But back to conferencing, one thing I enjoy most about attending a conference is feeling that charge of excitement and enthusiasm that comes with hearing intellectually stimulating stuff. I find myself writing down a dozen ideas for research studies. I come away with a stack of readings. I think, “Why the heck didn’t I get that PhD?”

Well, I didn’t because I thought that, at 39, I was too old to pursue such. I talked myself out of it. And let’s just say that coming up on 20 years hence, I’m not talking myself into it now. BUT, reflecting on a number of the talks and and research presentations that I’ve taken in over last week (NIH Bibliometrics and Assessment Symposium) and this (Transforming Research 2020), I realized something fascinating. At least to me. I realized that way back in 2002, when I had a question about a certain pattern that I observed in exercise physiology research and publications, and I followed it up with an independent study … by golly, I was doing bibliometric analysis!

I’ve always tied this experience to ending up earning a library science degree and pursuing my current career, but only within the past couple of weeks have I put together the pieces and seen (1) how much they truly were aligned and (2) how research continues on in the area. So here’s what happened:

As a grad student at Ithaca College, working on my MS in exercise physiology, I attended a regional meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. At the meeting, a grad student (female) presented her research that observed the affect of a particular supplement on a group of subjects performing a particular physical training task. After she finished, an established faculty member (older, white, male) asked her about the subjects of her study. In short, her subject pool had consisted of only females. He questioned her on the legitimacy of generalizing any findings of a study that had not included males and said any study using women needed to specifically state that it was a study on women.

Next up, a grad student (male) presented his research that observed the affect of a particular supplement on a group of subjects performing a particular physical training task. His subject pool contained only males. I bet you’re ahead of me in guessing that, well, he didn’t get the same question regarding the generalization of his findings, nor how he titled his research.

And this happened again. And again. I looked through the program and took note of this oddity, and first chance I got, I asked my mentor, “What the hell is up with that?!” Thus was the seed for my independent study, “Current trends in exercise science research: A feminist cultural studies analysis.” I went to the library, went to the stacks, pulled 20 years worth of volumes of several prominent exercise science journals off the shelves, and began taking note of every title of every study looking at the affects of some intervention on training outcomes. (No Scopus or Web of Science, friends. I’m talking bound journals, paper, and pencil. This took awhile!)

[As an aside, my thesis topic also looked at sex differences, but related to factors of muscle fatigue, not words.]

Fast forward 20 years and I’m sitting in conferences attended by biomedical researchers, publishers, bibliometrics and research assessment practitioners, and librarians and here are some of the titles of studies authored and/or cited by the speakers so far:

Plus, the topic of the affects on COVID-19 on the female workforce in research and medicine, well that’s already targeted for study. Stay tuned for the many studies that will surely be published on this.

So what does all of this mean? Well, personally, I find it really interesting that a little spark that I noticed so long ago, didn’t just find only me. I think had I followed it up with that doctorate, I’d likely be doing this very research today with some of these same people. And honestly, I had no idea that was a possibility. It’s nice to know people are still studying and writing about the topic. It’s also frustrating and infuriating that it goes on, but… that’s another post.

All in all, the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion is being discussed an awful lot today (rightly so), but it’s been a topic for a long, long time. As one speaker said, “We know a lot about what we know. But where is the change?” That’s the real question, isn’t it? And it’s where the real work is. Time to get busy.