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Librarian Blog

Innumeracy ...

Like other forms of illiteracy, innumeracy seems to me to be a growing problem and one that is most certainly a threat to democracy.

Since a guy named Huff invented the word back in the '50s, lots of math-literate writers have warned about how the media and politicians can mangle "data" in the service of whatever scoundrelly purpose they are up to.

The examples are too numerous to mention here.

But, thanks to Jordan Ellenberg of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of a book on math and society we are reminded about how numbers can be made to lie.

Ellenberg's piece is in The Wall Street Journal of 6-27-28.

I have seen much on the challenges of dealing with Big Data recently, but little on how even small data can be changed to meet the needs of liars and thieves.

Ellenberg makes a strong point: We need people in the newsroom who can check not only a number's value but also its meaning.

Amen, brother.

My experience as an editor informed this perception: Few reporters go into the news business because they are good at math. It's up to editors to make them learn what they need to know in order to be responsible purveyors of the truth.

Pretty bad

Before this past weekend, the last time I flew anywhere was about three summers ago, and the experience was terrible.

I wound up getting into Austin from Oakland, Calif., at about 3 in the morning, then having to drive to Wimberley, because of various delays.

This weekend, we left Friday and came back Sunday, and there were no glitches on our Southwest flights.

The experience was kind of like it was to ride a cross-country bus in the '60s, which is something I did in 1966, to be specific.

No frills. No thrills.

This weekend's flight was memorable mainly because of the undiluted rudeness of every single TSA employee I ran into, and it seems like when you fly these days you do run into quite a lot of them. There must be a ratio of something like three TSA workers for every traveler. How in the world do we as a nation afford this?

I don't know. And not much I can do about it except try never to fly again if I can help it.

On the other hand, the highlight of the trip was eating the absolute very best hotdog I have ever had in my life -- at a stand in Midway International in Chicago.

That almost made the whole thing worth it. Almost.

Learning by hearing

When I think back on my early childhood one of my favorite memories has to do with sitting in my daddy's lap while he read books to me.

The closeness, the obvious affection -- those were aspects of that experience. But, I also loved being transported by my father's voice to other worlds and other states of being as he moved through books.

I haven't thought much about it since then, but I have stumbled across a whole field of research that looks at how important it is for a child to hear books, as well as to read them.

Specifically, I have become acquainted with a website called soundlearningapa.org. There, I found research about children exposed to books being read to them.

This quote caught my immediate attention: "The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for the eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children." That is from The Report of the Commission on Reading.

We have an entire wall of books on audiodiscs here at the library. And we have a section in our children's department.

Especially during the summer months when it may be hard to lasso a kid long enough to have him or her sit down to read, perhaps audiobooks are a good answer. As Ssuan LUndsteen, professor emeritus at the University of North Texas, notes at the website: "Children who are better listeners are also better learners."

It would serve us all well to be better listeners.

Say what?

At least 15 years ago, America's statisticians knew that before too long those public opinion polls that everyone loves to cite would be woefully inaccurate.

I remember reading exactly that in a scholarly journal. The reasons they discussed: the rise in use of cell phones; the use of caller ID; and the growing refusal of people to participate.

The prediction came true in the last general election.

Yet, polling continues at all levels as if those factors simply did not exist.

Now comes Cliff Zukin, writing in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, who notes that polling is getting ever harder and the results ever less relevant and reflective of actual opinion.

Zukin is among the first of the chattering classes to acknowledge that the emporer does not have a stitch of clothing on.

Will others follow suit?

Don't bet on it. As a group, pundits and newspeople are addicted to polling as if it is the only way to tell a story.

Beware as a news consumer, though: the results of those polls that will inevitably track the public love of the candidates in 2016 could be wildly inaccurate.

A very hard choice

The librarian of Congress is retiring at the age of 86 after 28 years on the job.

The New York Times reported this week that the president, who will appoint the new librarian, is beseiged by good advice from every sector. Some say he should name an academic; others say it should be a professional librarian; still others a technology expert; and even others, a management guru.

I have no advice because I have never had much to do with the Library of Congress.

But, I might be inclined to suggest he look very long and hard at a professional librarian. That's because a real librarian is likely to truly understand the depth and breadth of issues now facing public libraries. Those issues are not all technological, but technology does pose the most significant challenges, I would think.

Librarians also have a default setting about things like privacy and the importance of keeping what's publicly funded in the public domain.

There's more to libraries these days than just books, and a librarian would seem to be uniquely positioned to make the inevitable hard choices that loom ahead for every library in the world.

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