The Hashtag Syllabus: Part Three

In The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan, you can find this passage from Chapter 9: The Compact Library and Human Scale:

As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, I (McLuhan) encountered a library in the English Department that had immense advantages. I never have seen one like it since. It consisted of no more than 1,500 or 2,000 books. These books, however, were chosen from many fields of history and aesthetics, philosophy, anthropology, mathematics, and the sciences in general. The one criterion, which determined the presence of any book in this collection, was the immediate and top relevance for twentieth-century awareness.  The shelf-browser could tell at a glance exactly which poets, novelists, critics, painters, and which of their individual writings were indispensable for knowing “where it’s at….”

… The library of which I spoke existed in a corner of the English Faculty Library at Cambridge, but it enabled hundreds of students to share all the relevant poets, painters, critics, musicians, and scientists of that time as a basis for an ongoing dialog. Would it not be possible to have similar libraries created by other departments in the university? Could not the History Department indicate those areas of anthropology and sociology that were indispensable to the most advanced historical studies of the hour? Could not the Department of Philosophy pool its awareness of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant speculation and discovery of our time? Only now have I begun to realize that this unique library represented the meeting of both a written and oral tradition at an ancient university. It is this figure-ground pattern of the written and the oral that completes the meaning of the book and the library.

McLuhan isn’t the first scholar to recognize that there is something feels fundamentally different between a library collection of material selected by librarians and a working collection of material selected by practitioners. While the ideal academic library is close at hand and contains a vast amount of material relevant to one’s interests, the ideal working library is compact and at ‘human-scale.’

It is as if there are two kinds of power at hand.

From Karen Coyle’s FRBR Before and After‘s chapter The Model [pdf]

Patrick Wilson’s Two Kinds of Power, published in 1968, and introduced in chapter 1, is a book that is often mentioned in library literature but whose message does not seem to have disseminated through library and cataloging thinking. If it had, our catalogs today might have a very different character. A professor of Library Science at the University of California at Berkeley, Wilson’s background was in philosophy, and his book took a distinctly philosophical approach to the question he posed, which most likely limited its effect on the practical world of librarianship. Because he approached his argument from all points of view, argued for and against, and did not derive any conclusions that could be implemented, there would need to be a rather long road from Wilson’s philosophy to actual cataloging code.

Wilson takes up the question of the goals of what he calls “bibliography,” albeit applied to the bibliographical function of the library catalog. The message in the book, as I read it, is fairly straightforward once all of Wilson’s points and counterpoints are contemplated. He begins by stating something that seems obvious but is also generally missing from cataloging theory, which is that people read for a purpose, and that they come to the library looking for the best text (Wilson limits his argument to texts) for their purpose. This user need was not included in Cutter’s description of the catalog as an “efficient instrument.” By Wilson’s definition, Cutter (and the international principles that followed) dealt only with one catalog function: “bibliographic control.” Wilson suggests that in fact there are two such functions, which he calls “powers”: the first is the evaluatively neutral description of books, which was first defined by Cutter and is the role of descriptive cataloging, called “bibliographic control”; the second is the appraisal of texts, which facilitates the exploitation of the texts by the reader. This has traditionally been limited to the realm of scholarly bibliography or of “recommender” services.

This definition pits the library catalog against the tradition of bibliography, the latter being an analysis of the resources on a topic, organized in terms of the potential exploitation of the text: general works, foundational works, or works organized by school of thought. These address what he sees as the user’s goal, which is “the ability to make the best use of a body of writings.” The second power is, in Wilson’s view, the superior capability. He describes descriptive control somewhat sarcastically as “an ability to line up a population of writings in any arbitrary order, and make the population march to one’s command” (Wilson 1968)

Karen goes on to write…

If one accepts Wilson’s statement that users wish to find the text that best suits their need, it would be hard to argue that libraries should not be trying to present the best texts to users. This, however, goes counter to the stated goal of the library catalog as that of bibliographic control, and when the topic of “best” is broached, one finds an element of neutrality fundamentalism that pervades some library thinking. This is of course irreconcilable with the fact that some of these same institutions pride themselves on their “readers’ services” that help readers find exactly the right book for them. The popularity of the readers’ advisory books of Nancy Pearl and social networks like Goodreads, where users share their evaluations of texts, show that there is a great interest on the part of library users and other readers to be pointed to “good books.” How users or reference librarians are supposed to identify the right books for them in a catalog that treats all resources neutrally is not addressed by cataloging theory.

I’m going copy and past that last sentence again for re-emphasis:

How users or reference librarians are supposed to identify the right books for them in a catalog that treats all resources neutrally is not addressed by cataloging theory.

As you can probably tell from my more recent posts and from my recent more readings, I’ve been delving deeper into the relationship between libraries and readers. To explain why this is necessary, I’ll end with another quotation from McLuhan:

The content of a library, paradoxically is not its books but its users, as a recent study of the use of campus libraries by university faculty revealed. It was found that the dominant criterion for selection of a library was the geographical proximity of the library to the professor’s office. The depth of the collection in the researcher’s field was not as important a criterion as convenience (Dougherty & Blomquist, 1971, pp. 64-65). The researcher was able to convert the nearest library into a research facility that met his needs. In other words, the content of this conveniently located facility was its user. Any library can be converted from the facility it was designed to be, into the facility the user wishes it to become. A library designed for research can be used for entertainment, and vice-versa. As we move into greater use of electronic media, the user of the library will change even more. As the user changes, so will the library’s content or the use to which the content of the library will be subjected. In other words, as the ground in which the library exists changes, so will the figure of the library. The nineteenth-century notion of the library storing basically twentieth-century material will have to cope with the needs of twenty-first century users.


After I published this piece I realized that I didn’t include what I think is a genre-defining example of McLuhan’s “Where it’s at” library: Bret Victor’s Bookshelf.

This is the third part series called The Hashtag Syllabus. Part One is a brief examination of the recent phenomenon of generating and capturing crowdsourced syllabi on Twitter and Part Two is a technical description of how to use Zotero to collect and re-use bibliographies online.

The Hashtag Syllabus: Part Two

Last week I finally uploaded a bibliography of just under 150 items from the Leddy Library that could be found on the BlackLivesCDNSyllabi that has been circulating on Twitter since July 5th. In this post, I will go into some technical detail why it took me so long to do this.

For the most part, the work took time simply because there were lots of items from the original collection that was collected by Monique Woroniak in a Storify collection that needed to be imported into Zotero. I’m not exactly sure how many items are in that list, but in my original Zotero library of materials there are 220 items.

Because I’ve made this library public, you can open Zotero while on the page and download all or just some of the citations that I’ve collected.

I transferred the citations into Zotero because I wanted to showcase how citations could be repurposed using its API as well as through its other features. I’m a firm believer in learning by doing because sometimes you only notice the low beam once you’ve hit your head. In this case, it was only when I tried to reformat my bibliography using  Zotero’s API, I then learned that  Zotero’s API has a limit of 150 records.

(This is why I decided to showcase primarily the scholarly works in the “Leddy Library” version of the #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus and cut down the list to below 15o by excluding websites, videos, and musical artists.)

One of the most underappreciated features of Zotero is its API.

To demonstrate its simple power: here’s the link to the Leddy Library #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus using the API in which I’ve set the records to be formatted using the MLA Style: [documentation]

You can embed this code into a website using jQuery like so:

<!doctype html>
<html lang="en">
  <meta charset="utf-8">
  <title>Leddy Library #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus</title>
  body {
    font-size: 12px;
    font-family: Arial;
  <script src=""></script>
<h1>Leddy Library #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus</h1>
<div id="a"></div>

$( "#a" ).load("" );

The upshot of using the API is that when you need to update the bibliography, any additions to your Zotero group will automatically be reflected through the API: you don’t need to update the website manually.

For my purposes, I didn’t want to use Zotero to generate a just bibliography: I wanted it to generate a list of titles and links so that a user could directly travel from bibliographic entry to the Leddy Library catalogue to see if and where a book was waiting on a shelf in the Leddy Library.

Now, I know that’s not the purpose of a bibliography – a bibliography presents identifying information about a work and it doesn’t have to tell you where it is located (unless, of course, that item is available online, then, why wouldn’t you?).  Generally you don’t want to embed particular information such as links to your local library catalogue into your bibliography precisely because that information makes your bibliography less useful to everyone else who isn’t local.

The reason why I wanted to include direct links to material is largely because I believe our library catalogue’s OpenURL resolver has been realized so poorly that it is actually harmful to the user experience. You see, if you use our resolver while using Google Scholar to find an article – the resolver works as it should.

screencapture of alma

But if the reader is looking for a book, the resolver states that there is No full text available — even the library currently has the book on the shelf (this information is under the holdings tab).


In order to ensure that book material would be found without ambiguity, myself and our library’s co-op student manually added URLs that pointed directly to each respective record in the library catalogue to each of the 150 or so Zotero entries in our #BlackLivesCDNSylllabus collection. This took some time.

Now all I had to do was create a blog entry that included the bibliography…

I will now explain two ways you can re-purpose the display of Zotero records for your own use.

The first method I investigated was the creation of my own Zotero Citation Style. Essentially, I took an existing citation style and then added the option to include the call number and the URL field using the Visual Citation Style Editor,  a project which was the result of a collaboration of Columbia University Libraries and Mendeley from some years ago.

I took my now customized citation style and uploaded it up to a server and now I can use it as my own style whenever I need it:

I can now copy this text and paste into my library’s website ‘blog form’ and in doing so, all the URLs will automatically turn into active links.

There’s another method to achieve the same ends but in an even easier way. Zotero has an option called Reports that allows you to generate a printer-friendly report of a collection of citations.

Unfortunately, the default view of the report is to show you every single field that has information in it. Luckily there is the Zotero Reports Customizer which allows one to limit what’s shown in the report:


There’s only one more hack left to mention. While the Zotero Report Customizer was invaluable, it doesn’t allow you to remove the link from each item’s title. The only option seemed to remove the almost 150 links by hand…

Luckily the text editor Sublime Text has an amazing power: Quick Find All — which allows the user to select all the matching text at once.


Then after I had the beginning of all the links selected for, I used the ‘Expand selection to quotes’ option that you can add to Sublime Text via Package Control and then removed the offending links. MAGIC!


The resulting HTML was dropped into my library’s Drupal-driven blog form and results in a report that looks like this:


Creating and sharing bibliographies and lists of works from our library catalogues should not be this hard.

It should not be so hard for people to share their recommendations of books, poets, and to creative works with each other.

It brings all to mind this mind this passage by Paul Ford from his essay The Sixth of Grief Is Retro-computing:

Technology is What We Share

Technology is what we share. I don’t mean “we share the experience of technology.” I mean: By my lights, people very often share technologies with each other when they talk. Strategies. Ideas for living our lives. We do it all the time. Parenting email lists share strategies about breastfeeding and bedtime. Quotes from the Dalai Lama. We talk neckties, etiquette, and Minecraft, and tell stories that give us guidance as to how to live. A tremendous part of daily life regards the exchange of technologies. We are good at it. It’s so simple as to be invisible. Can I borrow your scissors? Do you want tickets? I know guacamole is extra. The world of technology isn’t separate from regular life. It’s made to seem that way because of, well…capitalism. Tribal dynamics. Territoriality. Because there is a need to sell technology, to package it, to recoup the terrible investment. So it becomes this thing that is separate from culture. A product.

Let’s not make sharing just another product that we have to buy from a library vendor. Let’s remember that sharing is not separate from culture.

This is the second part series called The Hashtag Syllabus. Part One is a brief examination of the recent phenomenon of generating and capturing crowdsourced syllabi on Twitter and Part Three looks to Marshall McLuhan and Patrick Wilson for comment on the differences between a library and a bibliography.

The Hashtag Syllabus: Part One

Marcia Chatelain, who started the #FergusonSyllabus almost exactly two years ago wrote about her work in The Atlantic:

From the beginning of the situation in Ferguson, news reports alerted the public that Michael Brown was to start college soon. Before surveillance videos and photographs of protestors with their hands up were available, people saw a stoic Brown in a bright orange, probably acetate graduation gown. He will not have a first day ever again. And for the children of Ferguson, who have yet to have their first day, they may remember the smell of death, the odor of tear gas, the stench of an American tragedy.

In this kind of situation, people all say, what can I do? I have few talents in a crisis, but I do know I’m pretty good at teaching, and I knew Ferguson would be a challenge for teachers: When schools opened across the country, how were they going to talk about what happened? My idea was simple, but has resonated across the country: Reach out to the educators who use Twitter. Ask them to commit to talking about Ferguson on the first day of classes. Suggest a book, an article, a film, a song, a piece of artwork, or an assignment that speaks to some aspect of Ferguson. Use the hashtag: #FergusonSyllabus.

From a children’s book about living with someone with PTSD to maps of St. Louis’s school-desegregation struggles to J. Cole’s “Be Free,” the Ferguson archive was tweeted, re-tweeted, mentioned, and favorited thousands of times. A small community has formed; the fabric of this group is woven across disciplines and cultural climates. Some of us will talk about Ferguson forcefully, others gingerly, but from preschool classrooms to postdoctoral seminars, Ferguson is on the syllabus.

Since then, we have seen the #CharlestonSyllabus, the #lemonadesyllabus, the #OrlandoSyllabus, the #BrexitSyllabus, and the #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus and I’m sure there have been others that have been circulating but have done so outside of my own social media circle.

These syllabi are the collective efforts of many people who are sharing and recommending works of fiction, poetry, non-fiction articles and book-length works, as well as scholarly articles and theses. They are doing so in the pursuit of a richer, more complex, and more nuanced understanding of each other and the issues we face both alone and together.

While most of these syllabi collected their recommended readings through Twitter, each eventually needed to captured and collect the recommendations into a more static document. This is necessary for a number of reasons with the primary one being that tweets are difficult to bulk-retrieve from Twitter over time. There is also the not-consequential problem of trolls using the designated syllabi hashtags to insert their own agitating counter-messages.

For this post, I’m interested in how these ‘captured and collected’ syllabi have expressed the citations of their crowd-sourced recommendations:

#FergusonSyllabus (The Atlantic)

  • texts not online are listed with minimal citation information with no additional links: e.g. “A Talk to Teachers,” in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985 James Baldwin
  • a zotero library called “#Ferguson” is listed which is a collection compiled by Sociology and Anthropology professor, Josh Wells which includes several links to library research guides on the topic

#Charlestonsyllabus (African American Intellectual History Society)

#PulseOrlandoSyllabus (Google Docs)

  • texts not online are given a full citation but no link e.g. Moore, Mignon R. Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood among Black Women. University of California Press, 2011.

#BrexitSyllabus (Google Docs)

#LemonadeSyllabus (ISSUU /PDF)

  • title and author of each work is given with no further information or links provided e.g. Waffles, Zora Howard

#BlackLivesCDNSyllabus (Google Docs)


I’ve long wondered why many of my peers in librarianship seem markedly less enthusiastic than I am about citation managers like Zotero, standards such as COinS, and software like OpenURL resolvers that connect the library collections to non-library services like Google Scholar.

I tried to make the case for the importance of this suite of technologies last September as part of the Access 2015 Conference in Toronto when I gave a presentation called Library of Cards. I started my session with a brief history lesson to remind us the library catalogue and the bibliography share the common ancestor of the humble index card. In second part of my three-part talk, I sung the praises of Zotero and explained how it uses standards such COinS to connect the scholar to the library and beyond. And then I speculated that present-day card UX designs in platforms such as Twitter suggest that a new digital model of the 3″ by 5″ index card was possible.

We still don’t have an easy way to share citations online. This is apparent when one sees all the human labour still needed to create a formal bibliography from a collection of tweeted citations.

And I also know this first-hand because on and off over the last several weeks I’ve been working on a project to collect the books recommendations from #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus into a bibliography that can used by my library as well as re-purposed by other libraries. I will describe this work in Part Two.

[This is the first part of three-part series called The Hashtag SyllabusPart Two is a technical description of how to use Zotero to collect and re-use bibliographies online and Part Three looks to Marshall McLuhan and Patrick Wilson for comment on the differences between a library and a bibliography.]