NAHSL Meeting: William Powers Talk: Data for Humans: A Healthier Revolution

November 3, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Posted in Awards and Recognition, Professional Development | Leave a comment

Jessie Casella is another winner of our NAHSL conference funding award.   Jessie is a new NAHSL member and this was her first NAHSL meeting!  She works at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Library.  Congratulations, Jessie and welcome to NAHSL!


I attended the NAHSL 2016 Meeting in New Haven, Connecticut thanks to a NAHSL Professional Development Award. Thank you to everyone involved with planning the meeting – it was fantastic!

I found the third plenary speaker’s talk very relevant and wanted to share brief summary.

William Powers, spoke to NAHSL members in a talk titled “Data for Humans: A Healthier Revolution.” He authored the book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in a Digital Age ( and is currently part of the MIT Media Lab (

Mr. Powers first discussed the importance of libraries in his life. He identified three characteristics of libraries: accessibility, order, and meaning.  In his experiences with technology, Mr. Powers found that machines are still incapable of assigning order that made sense to humans and finding deeper meaning in data and noted that librarians can help bridge that gap.

Mr. Powers became concerned about the role technology was playing in people’s lives and questioned whether it was a healthy revolution and if the digital age was deepening people’s social interactions. Eulogies to the end of print spurred him on to consider the history of paper and the role technology plays in our lives.  The result was his essay Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal ( williampowers1which he later turned into a book.

Mr. Powers learned that the “tablets” Hamlet mentions were about the size of a present day digital tablet. The pages were made out of paste which people wrote on with a stylus and then could be swiped clear of text and reused.  He discussed how philosophers throughout history reacted to technology that disrupted their lives. Mr.  Powers stated that there have been technology revolutions throughout history and every time there was a revolution people incorrectly predicted outcomes.  The results of the technology revolutions were humans learning to work with machines and “deepening humanity.”

Mr. Powers pointed out that during our current digital revolution humans are finding a balance in working with machines. He noted that in the recent past, many people were glued to a mobile device but that tide is turning.  In looking around the audience, Mr. Powers noted that many of the NAHSL attendees were using print notebooks to write in.  He expressed hope that our society is beginning to balance digital technology rather than being a slave to it.

In his current work at the MIT Media Lab, Mr. Powers has been working on the Electome project ( in which he and colleagues are using Twitter and news stories to help track important issues in the 2016 presidential election and helped to develop questions for the presidential debates. He invited us all to sign up and see the dashboard.

The digital revolution continues and I would encourage you to check out these recent news items that Mr. Powers referenced:

Watson Oncology:

MIT task force releases preliminary “Future of Libraries” report:

Armstrong S. The computer will assess you now. BMJ. 2016 Oct 24;355:i5680.doi: 10.1136/bmj.i5680. PubMed PMID: 27777226.

The Lost Virtue of Cursive:

The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead:

Also, check out Mr. Powers’ website for further reading:

Jessie Casella, MLIS, AHIP


Dept. of Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts





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