Thursday, 31 January 2013

Pretentious, Moi?

'A User's guide to Artspeak' in The Guardian on Monday discussed an essay written by an artist and a critic, on what they describe as 'International Art English.'  In brief, this is the sort of wordy, imitative and pretentious language that you too often come across in writing on art (although you might also add cultural studies and philosophy too).  To paraphrase a sentence from the essay, it is language that asks for more than to be understood - it demands to be recognised.

The original essay is very interesting on the possible genealogy of this language, its peculiar lexicon, syntax and use.  And for anyone who has ever struggled with this stuff (and haven't we all?) it's pretty funny too.

By coincidence, this Monday's Start the Week programme on Radio 4 was a special on Political Writing, which took George Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language' as its starting point.  Orwell famously offered the following six rules:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. 
However, it is two sentences from his conclusion that I'm most impressed by:
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
As Alix Rule and David Levine suggest in the essay referred to above, a certain kind of academic writing can be more about showing that you belong to particular tribe, than it is about communicating something original about a topic.  It is this sort of posing that one should try to avoid.

Consider, for example, Mathew Reisz writing last year about scholarly work on his father - Karel Reisz:

Some of the analysis seems overly elaborate or to miss the point. Even stranger is the stuff I simply can't understand. While there are vast amounts of academic writing in technical or specialist areas I obviously can't follow, it seems peculiar not to be able to decipher what someone is saying about my own father and his films.
It is possible to write lucid and incisive academic work, which gives proper weight to the complexity of any given topic.  There is lots of good writing out there (as well as bad), so why would anyone bother with the boringly pretentious?

Helen Sword, whose book Stylish academic writing was published last year, identified a number of myths which seemed to be preventing academics writing better.  These include: 'Academic writing has to be difficult,' and 'Academic writing has to be dense' (there is more on this here).  So, it's no wonder that some academic writing is both dense and difficult.

Since writing this post, I have been sent a link to the publisher's page for Helen Sword's book.  It includes links to some of the interviews etc which she did last year, and also to the interesting video about 'nominalizations' below.  I have to confess I have never heard of nominalizations before, but I will be on the look out for them now.  I can think of one particularly irritating example already.

Iranian photography / The unphotographable

The latest issue of History of Photography is a special issue on the first hundred years of Iranian Photography.  It's worth a look.  And also take a look at the current exhibition - The Unphotographable - at the Fraenkel Gallery.  The catalogue isn't out until March, but we will try to get a copy.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

There is power in the union

Wouldn't it be great if you could search loads of great libraries simultaneously...?

Well, you can.

Take a look at the presentation below introducing Search25 and Copac - two great union catalogues.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Information seeking behaviour in The Big Lebowski

What can you learn about ‘information skills’ from watching the Coen brothers’ 1998 film, The Big Lebowski?  This is the question addressed in an article submitted to The Journal of Popular Culture (Dill and Janke, 2011).

The authors discuss the information seeking behaviour of four of its central characters - Donny, Walter, 'The Dude', and Maude - relating them to some interesting research into information seeking behaviour.

I summarise below how each of the characters shape up, and there are some illustrative clips from the film drawn from Box of Broadcasts.

NB: Box of Broadcasts requires Adobe Flash Player, and is therefore not viewable on an iPad.  You may also need to login first, and then refresh this page.  For University of Westminster students, go to the BoB National Site, and enter 'University of Westminster' into the 'Where are you from?' box; then refresh this page.


Donny has low-level information seeking skills.  He uses inappropriate information sources (i.e. Walter and The Dude), who are not authoritative nor courteous or inclusive.  They do nothing to help establish the self-confidence he needs to develop a more active information seeking strategy.  He therefore is in a cycle of not knowing.

'So you have no frame of reference here, Donny'

This recording is to be used only for non-commercial educational purposes under the terms of an ERA Licence. For terms of use and to find and record more programmes please visit BoB National.


Walter seems to formulate a goal-oriented plan.  However, he makes a number of false assumptions and mistakes.  In the terms of 'personal construct theory' he has an 'indicative' attitude - he depends too heavily on the construct he currently holds, and rejects new information that conflicts with that view.  As Dill and Janke suggest, "If one of Donny's failures is poor self-esteem, then one of Walter's is hubris."

His overconfidence is an indicator of incompetence - "he repeatedly dooms his searches to failure with quick assumptions and a lack of self-assessment." The clip below is just one of many instances of this (he happens to be right here, but more often he gets it wrong).

'Forget about the toe!'

This recording is to be used only for non-commercial educational purposes under the terms of an ERA Licence. For terms of use and to find and record more programmes please visit BoB National.

And here's Walter getting it wrong...

'This guy's a fake'

This recording is to be used only for non-commercial educational purposes under the terms of an ERA Licence. For terms of use and to find and record more programmes please visit BoB National.

The Dude

The Dude's information seeking behaviours are ultimately successful.  Although, he is not a proactive information seeker, he has a 'invitational' attitude, which contrasts to Walter's 'indicative' attitude - he is receptive to "new shit."  He also assimilates information from a variety of sources.

The Dude also exemplifies how a positive attitude can benefit an information search, enabling him to incorporate dissonant (conflicting) information. 

'New shit has come to light'

This recording is to be used only for non-commercial educational purposes under the terms of an ERA Licence. For terms of use and to find and record more programmes please visit BoB National.


Maude exhibits the most successful information seeking behaviours.  She has good self-esteem, clear goals, an 'invitational' attitude, and uses a variety of information sources.  She also  proactively seeks information to close her knowledge gaps - for example by obtaining the Logjammin' tape as shown in the clip below.

'Take a look at this, sir'

This recording is to be used only for non-commercial educational purposes under the terms of an ERA Licence. For terms of use and to find and record more programmes please visit BoB National.

So, what do we learn?

So, what do we learn?  What are some of the aspects of more successful information behaviours?  Having read the article a few times, and having watched the movie again to compile this post, here is what I think will improve your information behaviour:
Good self-esteem and a positive attitude
Choosing appropriately accessible and authoritative sources
Using a range of sources
Not being overconfident (not having a ‘indicative’ attitude - looking for information that supports your thesis, and dismissing information that doesn’t)
Being open to 'new shit' (i.e. having an 'invitational attitude')
Having clear goals
Being proactive
Being in a good mood
From my perspective, what is most interesting is that effective information behaviours seem not just to be about cognitive ability or knowledge, they are also attitudnal.  Dill and Janke comment on this, suggesting that poor mood leads to poor information behaviour.  They also suggest that it is the mood-enriching experience of coitus that helps 'The Dude' finally understand what is going on.  Now, there's a suggestion for your essay schedule!

'Oh man, my thinking about this case has become so uptight'

This recording is to be used only for non-commercial educational purposes under the terms of an ERA Licence. For terms of use and to find and record more programmes please visit BoB National.


Dill, E. and Janke, K. (2011). “New Shit Has Come to Light": Information Seeking Behaviour in The Big Lebowski. The Journal of Popular Culture. Preprint, submitted September 21, 2011. [online] Available from: 10.1111/j.1540-5931.2011.00874.x [Accessed 17/01/2013].

The full movie is available here:

This recording is to be used only for non-commercial educational purposes under the terms of an ERA Licence. For terms of use and to find and record more programmes please visit BoB National.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Ebooks summary

What are ebooks?
This sounds simple enough doesn't it, but in fact ebooks come in a variety of formats.  You can buy an ebook for a device such as Kindle or Ipad and own the book; there are also lots of out of copyright books that you can download for free.

However, with many ebooks available from the library, it isn't like that.  Often you view the ebook as a web-page, or (with ebooks on Dawsonera) you can download the book for a limited period (1-3 days).

Some of our ebooks (e.g. those on Science Direct or on EbscoHost) do allow you to download and keep extracts; and transfer them to your Kindle or Ipad.

Where can I find ebooks?
You can go directly to any of our ebook suppliers either by the links on this page or by typing the name of the supplier into Library Search.  However, all of our ebooks (with only a few exceptions) are listed on Library Search individually, so you will find them in the same way as you find printed books.

Do I need special software to view an ebook?
Yes and no.  The library's various ebook platforms use standard browsers and applications.   All users will need a a recent version of Adobe Reader and Windows users will need any of the main browsers - Internet Explorer Version 7.0 or newer, Firefox Version 3 or newer or Google Chrome.  Mac users are advised to use Google Chrome (see below).

Many problems with all e-resources can often be resolved by switching browsers.

Why can I only see one page?
A common problem when viewing ebooks is that the PDF of the page opens outside the ‘viewing window’ preventing you from seeing more than one page.

In the Windows version of Adobe Reader (and older versions of the Mac version), this is easily rectified in the settings within Acrobat Reader.  Open Adobe Reader and go to Edit>Preferences>Internet and make sure that “display PDF in browser” is checked.

Mac users, should read on...

So, what are the issues for Mac users?
First of all ebooks are not necessarily compatible with Preview, so you will need a recent version of Adobe Reader (which you can download and install for free).  You will also need to make this your default PDF viewer.

To make Adobe Reader your default viewer, CTRL click on any PDF, select 'Open With' and choose 'Adobe Reader'. Once you have selected Adobe Reader, check the box that says 'Always Open With' (as shown below).



Secondly, dawsonera supposedly supports the Safari browser.  However, there are compatibility issues between recent versions of Safari and Adobe Reader, which means that if you have a recent version of Safari, you will experience problems.

One option, which I haven't tested, is to use the Schubert plugin.  However, it is far easier to download Google's Chrome browser, and use this in preference to Safari.  If you experience problems with Chrome, type about:plugins into the address bar, and make sure that Chrome PDF viewer is enabled.

When I try to open an ebook, all I can see are random characters...
This normally happens when you are using Preview rather than Adobe Reader – see the advice for Mac users above.

Can I print from an ebook?
Both the Dawsonera and Ebsco platforms allow you to print from ebooks.

With Ebsco, the software allows you to create a PDF of an extract of around 10% of the book, which can be saved or printed.  With Dawsonera, there is a button on the menu bar to the left which allows you to print the page you are on.  In Dawsonera, each page you want to print must be printed separately.

How can I download ebooks?
The ebooks available from Dawonera can be downloaded for up to three days, after which time the file becomes inaccessible.  You can download to your home computer, laptop, or memory stick, but tablets are not currently supported.  Unlike when you view online, you cannot copy or print from these downloads.

Ebooks available from Science Direct allow you to download individual chapters, and ebooks available from Ebsco allow you to print sections using 'print to PDF' - this is normally around 10% of the total.

Where can I get help?
Staff in the library will be very happy to help you overcome any issues you have using ebooks.  You may also find the links below helpful.

Ebooks FAQs

Ebooks on Ebsco - user support