Author: drmaltman

Keeping Bits Forever

Keeping Bits Forever

Deploying cost-effective, reliable bit-level long-term preservation at scale remains an unsolved problem. Memory organizations have identified a number of high-level ‘best practices’, such as fixity checking and geographically distributed replication, but there is little specific guidance or empirically-based information on selecting specific preservation strategies that fit a curating institution’s risk-tolerance, threat profile, and budget. Thus, while cloud storage vendors such as Amazon tout 99.999999999% durability; these claims typically lack substantial explanation or even clear definitions Further, professional memory organizations vary significantly in the practices they use, and how they use them — even in the number of copies held.

In newly published research with Richard Landau we use multi-level statistical simulation to simulate failure resulting from hardware faults, storage conditions, “normal” organizational failure, and correlated multi-organizational failures. By varying the parameters of this multi-level model we can simulate everything from bad disk sectors, to economic recessions, to minor wars.

More formally, this work, presented at IDCC and forthcoming in the International Journal of Digital Curation (ArXiv preprint available) addresses the problem of formulating efficient and reliable operational preservation policies that ensure bit-level information integrity over long periods, and in the presence of a diverse range of real-world technical, legal, organizational, and economic threats. We develop a systematic, quantitative prediction framework that combines formal modeling, discrete-event-based simulation, hierarchical modeling, and then use empirically calibrated sensitivity analysis to identify effective strategies.

After analyzing hundreds of thousands of simulations we find that answer is ten 🙂 Seven copies, distributed across different organizations, and validated systematically every year, in weekly increments protects against everything except strong coordinated attacks on the auditing system itself — including bad disks, storage conditions, firm failures, recessions, and regional wars. Using a crytographically secure distributed auditing system and 3 additional copies will protect against even a strong attack — as long as at least half the servers remain.So… 10,

There are also some corollaries for those considering file format transformations…

  • Use compression — provided its a well-established, lossless algorithm — what you lose in fragility you gain in costs of replication & auditing.
  • If you need to encrypt your data — keep 4 keys and audit these.
  • If format failure is a substantial risk, maintain 4 readers for each format, and audit your collection with these.

Here’s a complete list of our recommendations, in accessible form.

All of the code for the simulation is available on my program’s github site. For those interested in these questions and related areas of interest, writings on digital presentation are linked from my web site.

Matching Uses and Protections for Government Data Releases: Presentation at the Simons Institute

Matching Uses and Protections for Government Data Releases: Presentation at the Simons Institute

(The blog had been on hiatus during 2019 as CREOS launched. This post is part of a series of catch-up blog post summarizing talks presented over the last 10 months.)

In the work included below, and presented at the Simons Institute, we describe work-in progress that aims to align emerging methods of data protections with research uses. We use the American Community Survey as an exemplar case for examining the range of ways that government data is used for research. We identify the range of research uses by combining evidence of use from multiple sources including research articles; national and local media coverage; social media; and research proposals. We then employ human and computer-assisted coding methods to characterize the range of data analysis methodologies that researchers employ. Then, building on previous work cataloging that surveys and characterizes computational and technical controls for privacy, we match these methods to available and emerging privacy and data security controls.

Our preliminary analysis suggests that tiered-access to government data will be necessary to support current and new research in the social and health sciences. We argue that discovery research (currently) requires access beyond limits of formal protections — empirically guided exploratory research, theory generation, process tracing, novel syntheses (etc.) are incompletely understood and formalized. This is in part because in analysis of privacy tradeoffs ‘‘worst-case’ analysis is used for risks, but average-case analysis used for benefits.

For those interested in these questions and related areas of interest, writing on modern approaches to privacy principles and protectins are linked from my web site.

Well-Being at Scale for Policy Research: A Conversation Convened by the Dubai Future Foundation

Well-Being Measures at Scale for Policy Research

(The blog had been on hiatus during 2019 as CREOS launched. This post is part of a series of catch-up blog post summarizing talks presented over the last 10 months.)

The Dubai Future Foundation invited me to lead a conversation on the significance of the concept of well-being for social-science and policy. These slides framed the conversation, and summarize of the subsequent discussion of opportunities and challenges of measuring well-being at scale.

Human well-being has four major dimensions: affective, health, economic, and ethical/political. Policy analysis typically focuses on only one of these dimensions, and measured coarsely — e.g. ranking countries by GDP, while ignoring the distribution of wealth (not to mention health, freedom, and life-satisfaction).

Focusing on GDP and other incomplete measures of well-being limits often leads to the wrong conclusion about, what makes good policy. For example in a paper we published recently The Happiness-Energy Paradox: Energy Use is Unrelated to Subjective Well-Being we find that although energy use does have a limited relationship with GDP it does correlate with subjective well-being. This suggests that conservation is compatible with direct national-interest in developed countries, and highlights the need for more sophisticated measures of policy outcomes.

One challenge to making policy analysis more sophisticated is measuring well-being at scale. The discussion highlighted a number of existing sources of big data that could be repurposed for broad use well-being measurements:

  • Facial expression
    • … short term subjective measures (e.g. happiness)
    • … measures of durable emotional states (e.g. anxiety/depression)
  • Quantified self systems, health mobile apps for
    … extensive collection of self-evaluative measure
  • Public social profiles to …
    … measure emotive statements and communication patterns indicative of well-being
    … detect life-events
  • Administrative and financial data …
    … detect life events
  • Always-on listening devices (e.g. alexa) to measure ….
    … voice tone, voice emotion, conversational patterns
  • Location tracking
    … movement variability proxies for well-being

For those interested in these questions and related areas of interest, writing on modern approaches to privacy principles and protectins are linked from my web site.

Privacy Gaps in Mediated Library Services

Privacy Gaps in Mediated Library Services: Presentation at NERCOMP2019

(The blog had been on hiatus during 2019 as CREOS launched. This post is part of a series of catch-up blog post summarizing talks presented over the last 10 months.)

Libraries enable patrons to access a wide range of information, but much of the access to this information is now directly managedy publishers. This has lead to a significant gap across library values, patrons perception of privacy, and effective privacy protection for access to digital resources.

In the work included below, and presented at NERCOMP 2019, we review privacy principles based on ALA, IFLA, and NISO policies. We then organizing and comparing high level privacy protections required by ALA checklist, NISO, and GDPR. This framework of principles and controls is then used to score the privacy policies and practices of major vendors of research library content. We evaluate each element of the vendors privacy policy, and use instrumented browsers to identify the types of tracking mechanisms used by different vendors. We use this set of privacy scores to support analyses of change over time, and of potential gaps between patron expectations and privacy policies and practices.

Our analysis reveals a number of patterns:

  • Invasize data collection, broad use, detailed tracking are common
    — this is inconsistent with library privacy values
  • Large commercial publishers have the weakest privacy protections — while discovery portals do better.
  • Open access is not associated with better privacy protection directly —
    Publishers track access to open access materials to the same degree as copyrighted works

We argue that libraries can do better through standardizing licenses, providing patrons with up-front and comprehensible information on privacy, and by incorporating privacy values into the design of new tools for access and discovery.

The data analysis supporting the presentation are available on the program’s github site. We will be posting the full preprint online soon. For those interested in these questions and related areas of interest, writing on modern approaches to privacy principles and protectins are linked from my web site.

CHI and the Future of Mobile UX

CHI and the Future of Mobile UX

Katie Montgomery

CHI is an annual international conference that focuses on human factors in computing systems, also known as human-computer interaction (HCI). At first glance this may not sound like an exciting topic until you realize that you are the human factor in computing systems and you are using interfaces and structures created by HCI research all of the time. Asking your phone how to get to the nearest pizza joint? That’s HCI. Celebrating your step count with your fitbit? HCI again. Typing? Definitely HCI. We rarely spend a day without using the myriad forms of interaction circumscribed by human factors in computing systems. It just doesn’t have a sexy name.

As forces for civic and cultural improvement through learning, libraries have an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to discover and invent novel ways for people to interact with information. If we can leverage our access to knowledge in collaboration with technical giants (Google comes to mind), we may be able to open up new avenues to reach our patrons and improve their lives. That’s the point after all.

This year (2018) was my first time attending CHI and I’m coming at it from a library background so the entire experience was an eye opener. The schedule alone was 95 pages long (without abstracts), and contained topics ranging from interactivity in autonomous vehicles to bio design and existence. There were dozens of concurrent sessions and choosing between “Gender-Inclusive Design: Sense of Belonging and Bias in Web Interfaces” and “Evaluating the Disruptiveness of Mobile Interactions: A Mixed-Method Approach” was no simple task. Instead I skipped the anguish of session indecision and took the easier route: attending a few pre-designed 2-4 hour courses over the week, diving in depth into topics and interacting with my fellow conference-goers to brainstorm questions and solutions and learn about each other’s backgrounds.

One course was especially rewarding. “Mobile UX–The Next Ten Years?” taught by Simon Robinson, Jennifer Pearson, and Matt Jones encouraged us to try and extend our minds beyond the flat dark glassy rectangle that mobile devices seem to be stuck in and explore our other senses within the mobile context. [1] Matt likened our present experience with mobile devices to the story of Narcissus- A beautiful man finds a perfectly still pool of water that mirrors his face and falls in love with his own reflection, eventually wasting away from lack of food and water as he refuses to leave the flawless image he has found.

An edited painting by Caravaggio:

Much in the same way that Narcissus was entranced by an idealized self we are entranced by our phones, diving into them and rarely coming up for air. Matt posited an idea-what if our phones got us to put down our phones? No, not just some kind of alert saying that you’ve spent too much time on YouTube (although we discussed those ideas too), but actual apps whose intention is to get us to interact with the real world.

Matt told us a story about his daughter. When she was six or so they had purchased a small GPS driving device. On a trip his daughter, holding the device, piped up from the back, asking “Daddy, where are the bears?”. A little baffled, Matt told her he didn’t know. A few minutes later, after peering out the window for while she asked again “Daddy, where are the bears?”. This time he asked why she thought there should be bears and she explained “It says in half a mile bear right!”. Sure, the interaction is cute, but Matt used it to create a game: every time the GPS told them that there was a “bear” on the right or left he and his daughter had to find something outside the car- a bird, stone, a tree, something in the real world. Interaction and creation define much of what it means to be alive but mobile devices are often real-world isolating and consumptive. [2] So the question remains: how do we change that status quo? Mobile devices are ubiquitous and convincing people to simply use them less is unrealistic. So how can libraries take a leading role in redirecting energy and time towards experience and action? In a purely digital context we could include local clubs and activity suggestions pertaining to subjects in topic guides. In the more focused area of mobile devices we could encourage and participate in the development of apps that recognize geographic location and ping the user with information relating to local ecology, history, or culture. Something along the lines of “You’re near Thoreau’s cabin, would you like to take a detour to see it?”, or “The woods you’re in may have lady slippers (a rare native orchid), keep an eye out! This is what they look like:

Photo by Debbi Griffin

Even better, if the app could include crowd-sourced data people would be able to create content and expand the digital way-signs redirecting to the real world. The app could include preference settings so that the user would only be given notifications about nearby natural phenomena or historical monuments, depending on their interests. Somebody start making this, I want to use it.

Libraries have a pressing need to take HCI into explicit account. Historically librarians have been gatekeepers to information but with the advent of the online public access catalog (OPAC) we threw open the doors to knowledge and invited the world to search for it on their own terms. Except we didn’t. The way that resources are organized within a library is a fairly closed system that requires training to navigate, and while we have made great strides in improving our OPACs and websites so that they are more intuitive for our users there is still work to be done. In order to empower our users to find, evaluate, and use the resources we put at their disposal we need to examine the way that they interact with our systems and modify those systems to improve usability. It’s not enough for the library catalog to knows that a book exists. The patron needs to know too.

If the ideas raised in this post have set your imagination alight and you want to incorporate apps into your library consider looking at Nicole Hennig’s work on the subject. Her books Apps for Librarians: Using the Best Mobile Technology to Educate, Create, and Engage and Mobile Learning Trends: Accessibility, Ecosystems, Content Creation are a good place to start. For a more recent survey of the current technologies as they apply to academic libraries try reading Mobile Technology and Academic Libraries: Innovative Services for Research and Learning by Robin Canuel and Chad Crichton.


1. For more on a creative outlook for the future of mobile devices read “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interactive Design” by Bret Victor.

2. Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other” goes into this phenomenon in depth.

Investigating the Evolving Information Needs of Entrepreneurs: Integrating Pedagogy, Practice & Research

Investigating the Evolving Information Needs of Entrepreneurs:
Integrating Pedagogy, Practice & Research

Nicholas Albaugh & Micah Altman

Innovation-driven entrepreneurship is essential and indispensable in the race to solve the world’s major challenges, especially in the areas of health, information technology, agriculture, and energy. MIT is a global leader in this type of entrepreneurship: a 2015 report from the Institute’s Sloan School of Management estimated that active companies founded by MIT alumni produce annual revenues of $1.9 trillion, equivalent to the world’s tenth largest economy. In terms of the curriculum at MIT, over sixty courses in entrepreneurship were taught during the 2016-2017 academic year.

Discovering, accessing, and integrating information is critical to the success of innovation-driven entrepreneurship and it is part of the Libraries’ core role to improve the foundations for discovery, access, and integration. The presence of a vibrant community of entrepreneurs provides an opportunity to delineate and understand the information skills, needs, and challenges of students and researchers engaged in entrepreneurial ventures. This understanding can inform strategies and methods to address these challenges and aid in the design of innovation methods of library instruction which move beyond small group lectures.

In this blog post, we are going to report on the background and preliminary results of a project designed to answer these questions. There were three stages to this project: background research to identify the information related skills of entrepreneurs, the design of a survey instrument, and the surveying of MIT’s delta v accelerator program.

Initial Steps & Background Research

This was a group effort. Nicholas Albaugh (Librarian for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) did most of the heavy lifting — performing both the ‘bench’ work identifying what was known about information use in entrepreneurship, interacting with the students and the class, and creating a first draft of communications. Micah Altman (Director of Research) provided overall scientific guidance, co-lead in conceptualization, developed the research design and methodology, performed the quantitative analysis, and provided critical review. Shikha Sharma, Business and Management Librarian, and Karrie Peterson, Head of Liaison, Instruction, and Reference Services, contributed to the conceptualization of the project and provided critical review.

During the first few months of the project, the four of us met roughly once a month to develop a prospectus outlining the research questions, methods, desired outcomes, and key outputs.

After this prospectus was completed, we wanted to build on previous work by identifying existing frameworks outlining the information skills necessary for entrepreneurial success and entrepreneurial competencies more broadly.

To identify these frameworks, we conducted background research in the business and library literature using three databases: Business Source Complete, ABI/INFORM Complete, and Library, Information Science and Technology Abstracts.

The primary article in terms of identifying key information-related skills for entrepreneurs was “21st Century Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities and Entrepreneurial Competencies: A Model for Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Education” by Trish Boyles. This delineated three broad categories of entrepreneurial competencies, cognitive, social, and action-oriented. The key information-related skills fell in the cognitive category, in particular:

  • A habit of actively searching for information
  • The ability to conduct searches systematically
  • The ability to recognize opportunities when not actively looking for them by recognizing connections between seemingly unconnected things

In addition to a general framework regarding the information-related skills of entrepreneurs, we wanted a more general framework for entrepreneurial competencies. The premier text for this is Bill Aulet’s Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup. It is the textbook for the delta v program and its author is the Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, one of the key parts of MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Outside MIT, it has been translated into eighteen languages and serves as the text for three, web-based edX courses taken by hundreds of thousands of people in countries all over the world.

MIT delta v

We decided to survey MIT’s delta v accelerator program, as it is widely considered the capstone entrepreneurial experience for students here on campus. Participants in the program work full time over the course of the summer on the following goals:

  • Defining and refining their target market
  • Conducting primary market research about their customers and users
  • Running experiments to validate or invalidate hypotheses regarding potential customers
  • Building and nurturing their founding team


The goal of the survey was to identify which stage of the information gathering phase of the delta v program was most time consuming and which part of that process was the most challenging. We were also interested in learning what resources and tools they used during these stages and processes and what tools they would have preferred to use. We also sought to identify specific information needs of those participating in the delta v programs in order to inform solutions going forward.

Our survey consisted of six multiple-choice questions and 5 open-ended questions. The multiple-choice questions addressed the following points:

  • Time spent on market analysis vs. business model development and the most challenging part of each process
  • The relative challenge of identifying and evaluating sources and extracting and analyzing information
  • Resources, tools, and methods used to locate, extract, and collect information

The open-ended questions addressed:

  • The most useful tools they used when seeking, collecting, and analyzing information and why
  • What existing tools would have been useful to them
  • The biggest surprises they encountered during this process



We launched a pilot version of this survey at the conclusion of the program in September 2017, in which six students participated.

Some suggestive patterns emerged: All of the entrepreneurs surveyed reported that market analysis was the most time-consuming phase involving seeking, collecting and analyzing information; and all of them used a library resource in their search for information. Further, nearly all of the entrepreneurs found evaluating sources of information, and summarizing, analyzing and mining those sources challenging or very challenging — and almost all relied on manual copying and pasting to extract or collect information they discovered.


We plan to survey a larger group of MIT delta v students during the upcoming summer 2018 cohort of the program. This larger data set will allow us to draw more generalizable conclusions regarding the information-related skills necessary for entrepreneurial success.

We hope these preliminary results will prompt other universities to investigate the specific information needs of entrepreneurs, particularly students in non-traditional settings like accelerators, incubators, and competitions as opposed to the classroom. Once these particular information needs are better understood, librarians can better address them through targeted workshops and instruction.

Guest Post: Graduate Research Intern, Katherine Montgomery, on the inaugural CHI Science Jam

Katie Montgomery is a Graduate Research Intern in the Program on Information Science, researching the areas of usability and accessibility.


by Katherine Montgomery

Research libraries are catalysts for interaction with and creation of knowledge. As information and interactions with it become increasingly digital, librarians are increasingly concerned with the way that computers and humans interact. [1]

The Computer Human Interface group of the ACM is a group of professionals devoted to studying these interactions. Their annual conference, CHI, is a place where people share the state of the art, and learn to use the state of the practice. CHI itself isn’t a standard library conference but it addresses many of the concerns of librarians in a broader context. For example, focal points include digital privacy (which libraries work to protect), improving UX in virtual and physical realms, gamifying learning interactions, and addressing the pitfalls of automation. The conference is also packed with people the library serves, i.e. academics.

A ‘jam’ or a ‘hackathon’ is distinguished by teams of relative strangers coming together to tackle specific problems in a focused and creative way within a limited time frame. The event fosters personal connections, concrete learning, pride in the product, and has the potential to generate real life changes. Libraries aim to nurture precisely these elements and would do well to look to hackathons and jams and adapt their structure to empower patrons. Here at the MIT libraries, we aim to create and inspire hacks in the great MIT tradition of using ingenuity and teamwork to create something remarkable.

Attending the Science Jam is a great way to start CHI, especially if you’re coming from a library background. The Science Jam enables you to interact with your prototypical patrons on problems that interest both of you and in a fashion that familiarizes you with patron needs. The Science Jam itself is a way to hack the conference. [2]

This is the first year they’ve run the program, and if you’ve never heard of a Science Jam before here’s the lowdown: it’s essentially a hackathon for scientists. You form teams, come up with a problem, pose a question, create a hypothesis, design a test, run the test, analyze your results, and present your study, all in 36 hours. About 60 people attended this year’s jam. We formed ten teams, broke into two rooms (so we could use each-other as test subjects the next day without contaminating our sample with knowledge of the study), and began the stimulating and occasionally frantic process. My team tackled privacy. Our initial problem? People share other people’s data without thinking about it or even realizing it. Our question was, how could we change this behavior? In order to create something testable we quickly honed the question to a much more specific issue and hypothesis. When people attend large conferences, or festivals, or concerts, or other public events they often take pictures that focus on a screen, or a float, or a stage, but include strangers in the foreground or to the sides. They then upload those pictures to their social media accounts where, even if they aren’t tagged, those strangers are vulnerable to facial analysis software and the eyes of the public. We hypothesized that if given cues that they are sharing the faces of strangers people might change their behavior by altering the photo to obscure those faces. Our initial hope was to create a digital interface but time and tech constraints limited us to a paper prototype. We took photographs which contained bystanders but were focussed on a different element, in this case a sign or a presenter with slides. We gave our participants the choice of selecting one of these photos to hypothetically upload to their social media account (we asked the participants to imagine that these were pictures they had taken). After selecting the photo they were presented with an upload interface with the option to go back and select another photo, crop the image, or upload the photo. However, these were given to three different groups with three additional caveats. The first group was given no textual cues as to the presence of potential bystanders in the photo (our control). The second group was given textual cues that there were potential bystanders in the picture, ie “this photo may contain two people, inside, standing up”. The third group was given visual cues that there were potential bystanders, ie blown up images of the faces beneath the main image. threefaces.png

These images were used with the express permission of the people they depict

For the most part, people uploaded the pictures anyway, not bothering to crop out the bystanders and not expressing concern for privacy in the follow-up questionnaire. The cues didn’t make a significant difference between behaviors, but we were surprised that such a technologically enlightened group didn’t take measures to protect people’s privacy more. Of course, our test group only contained 15 people (five per scenario), our prototype was on paper, and there were a number of other potential issues with our methodology, but the question and premise remain sound. How can we help people be aware of the fact that they may be violating other people’s privacy when uploading photographs to social media? And how do we help them alter that behavior?

The next day I attended a presentation given by Roberto Hoyle about his work testing the efficacy of various photo alterations in protecting privacy. Afterwards, we got to talking and posited an idea. What if Facebook added a feature to their image upload interface that asked a simple question: “Do you want to protect the privacy of the people you don’t know in this picture?”. If the person said yes then Facebook could auto-blur the faces it didn’t recognize as friends. The blur feature could be removed or modified, but it would bring the issue to the attention of the user and make it easy (and hopefully aesthetically pleasing, or at least acceptable), to obscure the faces of strangers.

While we agreed it was probably a moon shot I decided to go down to the exhibition hall and talk with the Facebook folks at their booth. I was met with a combination of skepticism and interest. Since then I’ve been in touch with a couple people at Facebook advocating for the idea. If your Facebook interface changes you’ll know it’s been a success. If not? Then the benefits are exclusively mine. Because of the Science Jam I had the opportunity to meet and work with people I would otherwise have never known, pursue meaningful ideas, improve my teamwork, practice scientific testing and analysis with a tight deadline, exercise my presentation skills, and make friends ahead of the conference itself. Libraries could benefit from implementing a similar model ahead of extended programming. Doing a week of events on graphic novels? Include a Cartoon Jam where people can come in, team up, generate ideas, produce some sketches and storylines, and share them with each other! Running a summer of gardening programs? Engage a couple of professionals in your area and encourage patrons to bring in photographs of their trouble gardens (lots of shade, rocky, hot, snow spill), form groups, hit the books, and pick each other’s minds for solutions. Trying to get the library more involved with the school letterpress? Collaborate with the experts there and run a Book Jam [3], challenging your students to connect e-readers and the early practice of printing. There are any number of ways that Libraries can take advantage of the Jam/hackathon model to engage their patrons and further the goal of becoming hubs for creation, not just consumption.

Excited? Inspired? Ready to work up a plan for your own hackathon or Jam? Take a look at the resources below and get cooking.


  1. Current research in the Program on Information Science focuses on how measures of attention and emotion could be integrated into these interactions.  
  2. CHI will be in beautiful Scotland next year. Attend the Science Jam. You won’t regret it.  Oh, and if you want to check out some of the documentation from this year’s Science Jam take a look at #ScienceJam #CHI2018 on Twitter.
  3. The very cool Codex Hackathon is already taken

Crosspost: How Big Data Challenges Privacy, and How Science Can Help

This originally appeared in the Washington DC 100 May 8th edition . It was co-written with Alexandra Wood, at the Berkman Klein Center, and briefly summarizes our joint paper:

Micah Altman, Alexandra Wood, David R. O’Brien, and Urs Gasser, “Practical approaches to big data privacy over time,” International Data Privacy Law, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2018),


The collection of personal information has become broader and more threatening than anyone could have imagined. Our research finds traditional approaches to safeguarding privacy are stretched to the limit as thousands of data points are collected about us every day and maintained indefinitely by a host of technology platforms.

We can do better. Privacy is not the inevitable price of technology. Computer science research provides new methods that protect privacy much more effectively than traditional approaches.

And research practices in health and social sciences show that it possible to strike a good balance between individual privacy and beneficial public knowledge.


Guest Post: Graduate Research Intern, Ada van Tine, on Libraries & Neurodiversity

Ada van Tine is a Graduate Research Intern in the Program on Information Science, researching the area of library privacy.


Our Libraries and Neurodiversity

By Ada van Tine

Andover-Harvard Theological Library Stacks by Ada van Tine

It is a quiet day the library where you work, you find it peaceful. But that is not the case for everyone. One of your patrons, Anna, is an 18 year old woman who falls on the autism spectrum. She needs to do research for her college final paper on W.E.B. Du Bois. She lives with her parents nearby the school and library, but their house is noisy and full of visiting relatives right now. However Anna doesn’t consider the library to be a calm alternative and is very nervous about going to the library because the fluorescent lights highly irritate her, their buzzing endlessly permeating her brain, causing nausea. To cope with this she often does repetitive movements with her hands. In the past, librarians and other patrons have been really awkward with her because of her hand movements and reaction to the lights. But she really needs to get these books for her paper, what will you do as a librarian to help this patron meet her needs? For individuals who are members of a neurominority, libraries can be extremely stressful, upsetting, and in the worst cases traumatic.

In libraries, we understand that we need to accommodate people who are different, but the problem is that sometimes we are not aware of who we might be failing to serve and why. If Anna gives feedback about the library in a suggestion box, the you might well schedule a replacement of the fluorescent lights as part of the library’s renovations. That is a small step toward progress, however we should not wait around for an invitation to make our libraries more bearable, leaving the chance that some patrons might be suffering in silence in the meantime. Librarians need to be radically proactive so as not to make their spaces only welcoming to the part of the population with neurotypical leanings. The solution, however, is not merely a focus on those who are “different” and need some kind of special accommodation.

Rather, the researchers and advocates who talk about neurodiversity now stress that neurodiversity is “the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome.” (Robinson, What is Neurodiversity?) Simply said: all humans fall on neurological spectra of traits, and all of us have our own variances from the norm. For each person in the world there exists a different way of perceiving and interacting with other people and information. For instance, people with dyslexia, people with autism, people with ADHD, and people who have not had a good night’s sleep all perceive the world and the library differently. The concept of Neurodiversity is another way to recognize that.

Furthermore, new research is continually helping us to evolve our ideas about neurodiversity. Therefore, libraries should stay abreast of advancements in technology for the neurodiverse population because they will benefit every patron. “Actively engaging with neurodiversity is not a question of favoring particular personal or political beliefs; rather, such engagement is an extension of librarians’ professional duties insofar as it enables the provision of equitable information services” (Lawrence, Loud Hands in the Library, 106-107). Librarians are called through the ALA Core Values of Access and Diversity to make all information equitably available to all patrons. To not recognize the existence of neurodiversity would be to ignore a segment of the whole society which we are called to serve.

There are immediate ways that your library can better serve a larger portion of the neurodiverse population. For example, below are some relatively low cost interventions:

  • For dyslexic individuals have a small reading screen available. esearch has shown that those with dyslexia can read more easily and quickly off of smaller screens with small amounts of text per page (Schneps).
  • Audiobooks, text-to-speech, and devices that can show text in a color gradient also help dyslexic patrons with their information needs.
  • For people who are on the autism spectrum replace the older fluorescent lights in the library, and don’t focus solely on open collaborative spaces in the library layout (Lawrence, Loud Hands, 105). Also train yourself and your employees to recognize and know how to react properly with autistic individuals who may express non verbal body language such as repetitive movements (Lawrence, Loud Hands, 105).
  • For people with ADHD, have quiet private rooms available so they can better concentrate at the library as well as audio books and text-to-speech programs so that they can listen to their research and reading while doing other things (Hills, Campbell, 462).
  • Train staff to never touch a person who is on the autism spectrum without their explicit permission, be aware of their sensory needs and hold the interview in a quiet place with no background noise such as an office fountain, and with no fluorescent lights. Some people on the autism spectrum are also smell sensitive, so notify staff to refrain from wearing perfume. (

New technologies and findings in cognitive science are being developed to better adapt to those individuals who are members of a neurominority. For example, a new reading program is being developed by Dr. Matthew Schneps that combines a reading acceleration program with compressed text-to-speech and visual modifications which has so far proven to drastically increase the speed of dyslexic and non dyslexic readers alike (Shneps). There are many studies on the ways in which modern technology can be used to better communicate with and educate autistic students. The future is hopeful.

Addressing neurodiversity in our libraries and in our societies is not a solved problem. For example there is research and development being done to reframe digital programs to be viewed as an ever growing ecosystem, never in stasis, so that they may better adapt to every user’s need as well as be transparent about the metadata of programs so that users can know which parts of the system are enabling or disabling their assistive technology (Johnson, 4). There are many steps to take that can help make the library more friendly to a neuro diverse audience, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that we must all plan to change and adapt now and over time to make our society a better, more liveable place for everyone. So that maybe when Anna comes to research the library and staff will be prepared to be a little more welcoming than she expected, and maybe she’ll even want to come back.

What to do next:


You may feel overwhelmed by the vast and complicated nature of this important task. The first step is always to educate yourself and get a grounding in basic literature about a subject. Many resources are included in the next section to aid in this discovery process.

You may wish to start off by learning about neurodiversity in general (What is Neurodiversity?,Definition of Neurodiversity). If you’ve identified a specific population need in your community — you may want to dig in deeper with resources specific to that neurominority, here are a few. (Autism Spectrum, ADHD, Dyslexia).

There are some good books and articles specifically about neurodiversity and libraries included in the resources. (Library Services for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder,

Loud Hands in the Library, Neurodiversity in the Library).

As it turns out, there is a lack of literature relating to best practices and programming in libraries in reference to neurodiversity. However, to understand and engage with this topic and community librarians should consider attending events and workshops — a number held by advocacy and research organizations are included below. (ADHD, Dyslexia, The A11Y project, International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, The Center for AAC and Autism).



Reference List

The American Association of People with Disabilities. Retrieved from

Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Retrieved from

The A11Y project. Retrieved from

Campbell, I., Hills, K. (2011). College Programs and Services. In M. DeVries, S. Goldstein, & J. Naglieri (Eds), Learning and Attention Disorders in Adolesence and Adulthood (457-466). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

The Center for AAC and Autism. Retrieved from

Children and Adults with Hyperactive Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from

Eng, A. (2017). Neurodiversity in the Library: One Librarian’s Experience. In The Library With The Lead Pipe, 1.

Farmer, L. S. J. (2013). Library Services for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chicago: American Library Association.

How Educators Can Help Autistic People by Sensory Accommodations. Retrieved from

International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved from

International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Retrieved from

Johnson, Rick. (2017, Sept 25). Accessibility: Ensuring that Edtech Systems Work Together to Serve All Students. Educause Review. Retrieved from


Klipper, B. (2014). Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chicago: American Library Association.

Lawrence, E. (2013). Loud Hands in the Library. Progressive Librarian, (41), 98-109.

Neurodiversity. Retrieved from

Ploog, B. O., Scharf, A., Nelson, D., & Brooks, P. J. (2013). Use of computer-assisted technologies (CAT) to enhance social, communicative, and language development in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal Of Autism And Developmental Disorders, (2), 301. doi:10.1007/sl0803-012-1571-3

Robison, John Elder. (2013, Oct 7). What is Neurodiversity? Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Schneps, Matthew H. (2015). Using Technology to Break the Speed Barrier of Reading. Scientific American. Retrieved from

A History of the Internet : Commentary on Scott Bradner’s Program on Information Science Talk

A History of the Internet : Commentary on Scott Bradner’s Program on Information Science Talk

Scott Bradner is a Berkman Center affiliate who worked for 50 at Harvard in the areas of computer programming, system management, networking, IT security, and identity management. Scott Bradner was involved in the design, operation and use of data networks at Harvard University since the early days of the ARPANET and served in many leadership roles in the IETF. He presented the talk recorded below, entitled, A History of the Internet — as part of Program on Information Science Brown Bag Series:

Bradner abstracted his talk as follows:

In a way the Russians caused the Internet. This talk will describe how that happened (hint it was not actually the Bomb) and follow the path that has led to the current Internet of (unpatchable) Things (the IoT) and the Surveillance Economy.

The talk contained a rich array of historical details — far too many to summarize here. Much more detail on these projects can be found in the slides and video above; from his publications, and from his IETF talks. (And for those interested in recent Program on Information Science research on related issues of open information governance, see our published reports.)

Bradner describes how the space race, exemplified by the launch of Sputnik, spurred national investments in research and technology — and how the arms race created the need for a communication network that was decentralized and robust enough to survive a nuclear first-strike.

Bradner argues that the internet has been a parent revolution, in part because of its end-to-end design. The internet as a whole was designed so that most of the “intelligence” is encapsulated at host endpoints, connected by a “stupid” network carrier that just transports packets. As a result, Bradner argues, the carrier cannot own the customer, which, critically, enables customers to innovate without permission.

ARPANET, as originally conceived, was focused on solving what was then a grand challenge in digital communications research: To develop techniques and obtain experience on interconnecting computers in such a way that a very broad class of interactions are possible, and to improve and increase computer research productivity through resource sharing.

Bradner argues that the internet succeeded because, despite the scope of the problem, solutions were allowed to evolve chaotically: ARPA was successful in innovating because it required no peer review. The large incumbent corporations in the computing and networking field ignored internet because they believed it couldn’t succeed (and they believed it couldn’t succeed because its design did not allow for the level of control and reliability that the incumbents believed to be necessary to making communications work). And since the Internet was was viewed as irrelevant, there were no efforts to regulate it. It was not until after the Internet achieved success, and catalyzed disruptive innovation that policymakers deemed it, “too important to leave to the people that know how it works.”

Our upcoming Summit supported by a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation, will probe for grand challenge questions in scholarly discovery, digital curation and preservation, and open scholarship. Is it possible that the ideas that could catalyze innovation in these areas are, like the early Internet, currently viewed as impractical or irrelevant? .