Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Stewart Brand

From my last post - this was the only book referred to in the New South Wales matrix that I hadn't yet read. So I set out to grab a copy of How Buildings Learn and discover more about its metaphor for a potential library future.

I think I have always been interested in architecture - take me to any city and I am perfectly happy wandering around to see what I can see in the streetscapes. I knew why I had this interest after a 1997 college guest lecture by James Howard Kunstler. As deeply ashamed as I was at the audience, some of whom booed his talk and belligerently challenged both his ideas and authority in the field, I had a growing sense of excitement and identification. Kunstler was my kind of guy - someone who had figured out that people's relationships with their surroundings profoundly affect their sense of development as a people. "Is this a place worth caring about?" he shouted, showing slides of all-too-familiar suburban landscapes where big box stores held dominion over the horizon and token landscaping replaced once thriving & complex ecosystems. It's no wonder young people feel alienated and isolated, he claimed, pointing to the lack of sidewalks in housing developments and the proliferation of bland "places" that resemble nowhere in particular.

His ideas resonated with me and I was grateful to find the words for things I sensed but was not able to articulate. I found this to be true of Brand's book as well: although one can read this book through the photographs, illustrations, and captions alone, the narrative Brand created is a good one indeed. My favorite reading "moments:"

He quotes from Jane Jacobs on the costs of new construction: "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings." (p. 28) This quote faces two photos - one of the carriage-style garage where Hewlett-Packard took shape in 1939, and the modest interior of a 1970s garage in Palo Alto where Steves Jobs & Wozniak invented the Apple computer.
In a strange way, libraries are always old buildings because we store the past - we are the metaphoric "old building" that provides a foundation for today's thinkers to build upon.
On p. 188, Brand points out the difference in philosophy of an architect who thinks of a building as a way to manipulate the power structure of those who inhabit it, and the actual inhabitants who will inevitably shape it the way their lives evolve: "A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start."
Libraries are changing organisms just as our users are changing organisms. Our future depends on being flexible, modular, and providing the raw space in which change can flourish.
"Anticipate greater connectivity always."
Beyond being an excellent example of Strunk & White style, this simple declarative sentence is what we should do for our institution as a whole and for the learners that come through our doors. Brand uses this as an introduction to a paragraph on the Berkeley's Wurster Hall conduits, built into the fabric of the building anticipating lots of lovely coaxial cable for television in every classroom. Instead, it proved to be a great way to network computers as the Internet revolution arose. What else could it have connected? Had this empty, "useless" space not been provided, there would have been no opportunity to help the building keep evolving with its inhabitants.

Architecture turns out to have a lot in common with libraries. We deal on a human scale, and help people create places worth caring about, worth inhabiting, and worth growing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bookend Scenarios - Public libraries 20 years in the future?

The State Library of New South Wales did a little future forecasting and compiled their results in a nice white paper called Bookend Scenarios (pdf). Although they were focusing on particularly Australian concerns, I was surprised by how applicable their vision is to American libraries. We face very similar challenges to our services, and it's worth taking a look at this report if you are concerned about the public library and its future incarnations.

Above is their matrix of change, with a sector for each of four scenarios named after seminal monographs: nonfiction for generalized scenarios, and fiction for the niche scenarios. The predicted outcomes of each scenario will depend on variables in our socioinformatic landscapes.

Right now, I'd say the average American public library is in the How Buildings Learn quadrant - technology is accelerating & formats are unstable but library services & buildings are expanding to meet community desires. Barring some global catastrophe after Peak Oil, I'd say American libraries are typically headed for a mashup between the Neuromancer and Fahrenheit 451 scenarios. In particular, I think that electronic formats will win the day for most sources of nonfiction and the physical paper-based book will become the province of fiction exclusively. I don't think that we will suffer from the lack of relevance forecast in the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, but I do believe we will find value in the Neuromancer prediction: people's skepticism of information could be tempered by situating librarians as arbiters of content, where we help users discern bias and conflicts of interest in the production of specific pieces of information.

Where do you think public libraries are headed in the next 20 years? We will surely follow society's lead, and the four visions in this fascinating project are distinctly possible versions of our collective future.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A little OT: buttons & widgets are helpful!

Stay home if possible when you are sick. Visit www.cdc.gov/h1n1 for more information.

I looked like this lady last week. Seriously, my friends, stay well and if you need some chicken soup or ginger ale I will bring you some while you stay AT HOME! The last thing I wanted to do was spread this junk around at the library while at a public service desk.

But where did I get such an attractive button? Why, the CDC of course! Many organizations (mine included) are starting to see the benefits of using and creating buttons, labels, and widgets for people to cut and paste into their websites. Keep your eyes peeled for more novel uses of this technology. Interactive widgets (like weather, headlines, etc) are a great way to provide fluid content to users who may not be visiting your website (yet).

Take a look at my sidebar to the right and see how many buttons you can spot. What would you add to yours, or your library's?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Random Questions on Future Libraries from Scott McLeod

I enjoy reading Scott McLeod's blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, because it challenges the status quo. He asks the questions that make us uncomfortable about the future of education (which is inextricably tied up in libraries, of course). He's posted some questions as a result of some recently completed speaking gigs. I answer them here.

1. What constitutes a “book” these days? When books become electronic and thus become searchable, hyperlinkable, more accessible to readers with disabilities, and able to embed audio, video, and interactive maps and graphics, at what point do they stop becoming “books” and start becoming something else?

Most of us refer to the material in our collections as "items" rather than "books." Because so many of them are not books anymore! We've been circulating records, tapes, CDs, DVDs, and other media for a long time now, so this is actually not a new concept. Libraries are story repositories, and whether those stories are accessible through hypertext, games, songs, movies, or any other form of media is sort of... um... irrelevant.

2. The Amazon Kindle e-reader currently allows you to annotate an electronic book passage with highlights and your own personal notes. Those annotations are even available to you on the Web, not just on the Kindle device itself. As Seth Godin notes, there hopefully will be a day when you will be able to share those notes with others. You’ll also be able to push a button on your e-reader and see everyone else’s notes and highlights on the same passage. What kind of new learning capabilities will that enable for us?

Just as today, your chosen learning community's notes and annotations will have the most relevance for you. In the face of all the junk that will emerge (ever bought a used textbook in college with crazy unrelated notes in the margins?!), the people whose opinions matter most to us will guide our reading experience.

3. If students and teachers now can be active content creators and producers, not just passive information recipients, doesn’t that redefine our entire notion of what it means to be information literate and media fluent? Are our librarians and classroom teachers doing enough to help students master these new literacies (for example, by focusing on student content creation, not just information consumption and/or interpretation)?

Yes. No. The NETS standards and AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner, among others, should be used by teachers in every discipline to measure student learning. But they are typically only being used by librarians, which is unacceptable. Administrators must reemphasize the library as the hub of student learning, not just an adjunct classroom space. Librarians should be the Lead Learners in every school building, and every teacher should be required to consult with them on a regular basis in order to build lesson plans that incorporate appropriately awesome information sources (see, not just books!) with the aim of total information literacy.

4. The Cushing Academy boarding school in Massachusetts may be the first school in the country to have its library go completely electronic. In addition to using library computers, students now check out Kindles loaded with books. How tough would it be for other schools to move to this model (and what would they gain or lose as a result)?

Pretty tough with the Amazon business model available today. Developmentally appropriate and appealing texts are not always available in Kindle formatted e-books for young people. I have the inkling that they may have done this for publicity - where is their librarian in all this? It's fairly suspect that their librarian is not the one in the spotlight here, it's the school's headmaster fronting the change. Take that as you will.

5. When books, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, music, movies, and other traditional library content all go electronic and online - deliverable on demand - what does that mean for the future of the physical spaces known as “libraries?” Mike Eisenberg said to me that we already should be taking yellow caution tape and blocking off the entire non-fiction and reference sections of our libraries. As content becomes digital and no longer needs to be stored on a shelf, with what do we replace that now-unused floor space: couches, tables, and cozy chairs? computer stations? meeting space? And if we head in these directions, what will distinguish libraries from other institutions such as coffee shops, community centers, and Internet cafes?

Public libraries are already converting reclaimed floor space into community areas, meeting rooms, and other usable spaces. And the difference between us and a coffee shop is that we're a neutral space, a space in which all are welcome. Haven't you seen coffee shops run off teens hanging out without buying coffee?!

What has, does, and will distinguish us from these spaces are LIBRARIANS. Your barista doesn't know how to help you find a price guide for 19th century china dolls, or figure out what the primary motivations were of the Romantic poets, or locate the best resource for building an addition to your house (as well as getting the right permits for local construction!). We do all that and more on a daily basis without breaking a sweat - we're trained information professionals.

6. Our information landscape is more complex than ever before. We still need people who know how to effectively navigate these intricate electronic environments and who can teach others to do so. But does that mean we still need “librarians” who work in “libraries?” Or will their jobs morph into something else?

Oh, they may call us something else. I personally like the Australian libraries calling themselves "knowledge centres." But our essence will remain the same - people who are intimately familiar with locating and manipulating information. The information changes - we only change in response to its evolution.

7. How much of a librarian’s current job could be done by someone in a different location (for example, someone in India who answers questions via telephone or synchronous chat) or by computer software and/or an electronic kiosk? I don’t know the answer to this question - and I suspect that it will vary by librarian - but I do know that many individuals in other industries have been quite dismayed to find that large portions of their supposedly-indispensable jobs can be outsourced or replaced by software (which, of course, means that fewer people are needed locally to do whatever work requires the face-to-face presence of a live human being).

Although there are many folks in other countries who could answer basic factual questions through outsourcing, I would never imagine that I could replace, say, an Indian librarian in the same manner if only for the simple fact that I don't have an entire lifetime sunk into reading Hindi-language books (not to mention absorbing the culture). The best librarians have been voracious readers and consumers of text/stories/movies/music since their wee years. It has an enormous effect on our ability to match the right person with the right materials. There is a lot of nuance needed, as well, in a good reference interview. Can an outsourced, distanced librarian help determine what the patron really needs instead of what s/he thinks s/he needs? You'd be surprised at the average library user's inability to articulate clearly what information they need because of gaps in their existing knowledge - which is of course not their fault, but it's why we have librarians in the first place.

8. Can a librarian recommend books better than online user communities and/or database-driven book recommendation engines? For example, can a librarian’s ability to recommend reading of interest surpass that of a database like Amazon’s that aggregates purchasing behavior or a dedicated user community that is passionate about (and maybe rates/reviews) science fiction books, and then do so for romance, political history, manga, self-help, and every other possible niche of literature too?

Maybe. Some librarians are better at this than others. (Keep in mind that purchasing behavior doesn't indicate enjoyability.) Most of us librarians are already out there in those book communities, in LibraryThing and Goodreads and blogging and sharing and Amazon rating and everything you have mentioned. I think the real question is: without librarians, would these online resources be as awesome? ;)

9. If school librarians aren’t actively and explicitly modeling powerful uses of digital technologies and social media themselves and also supporting students to do the same, should they get to keep their jobs?

If they're not at least actively learning about these things and trying to use them, then no. I don't expect every single librarian to become a social media expert, but if a digital tool exists to help you do your job better then you better be using it. It's not about using shiny new things for their own sake, it's about finding the right tool to manipulate information.

And if they are doing so individually (which is what we want), what’s their responsibility to police the profession (and lean on those librarians who aren’t)?

You can lead a horse to water... ultimately, we have the responsibility to move our profession in the direction our patrons are leading us. We can choose, in our own institutions, to educate our fellow librarians or even get sneaky and coerce them into trying new technologies so that they can recommend them to patrons. Because the right information that our patrons may need in the future is not always going to be textual; it may be a tool.

10. There is no conceivable future in which the primacy of printed text is not superceded by electronic text and media. If that future is not too far away (and may already be here), are administrators doing enough to transition their schools, libraries, and librarians / media specialists into a new paradigm?

Nope, they're not doing enough. Not collectively, anyway. But can you blame them? What with No Child Left Behind and testing and pep rallies and the weight of collective school culture and tradition, how on earth can they transition into a new paradigm? We need radical change for education - revolutionary improvements rather than incremental attempts at change - in order to move into the new information world of the 21st century.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vint Cerf & friends on Net Neutrality

At Internet Librarian 2009, we got to hear Vint Cerf with Google as our Monday keynote. I found this great video by way of Alec Couros' blog, which features Cerf talking about the importance of net neutrality.

Net neutrality is a super important concept for today's Internet users to learn about. Here's why you should support it:

-- Right now, it doesn't matter what you type into the address bar at the top of your browser. Whether you ask for this blog, Google.com, the New York Times, a friend's Facebook page, or your mom's recipe bookmarks on Delicious.com, your Internet service provider (ISP) will serve up whatever you ask for at the same speed. Every site is equal in the eyes of your ISP, and they are *neutral* when it comes to giving you access to these wildly different sites.

-- Without net neutrality, the doors are open to wealthy corporations and other people with influence to pressure the ISPs into delivering some sites more quickly than others. Or not at all. Can you imagine paying for Internet access and not being able to go to the sites you want to visit? Or having to sit and wait while the "right" sites are being delivered quickly, and your ISP deprioritizes your choices because the site owners couldn't afford to pay off TimeWarner, AOL, or (your ISP here)?

Net neutrality is something you should know about. It's a wonderful thing, and it keeps the voices on the Internet flowing in a democratic and fair way. Your choice is what matters - not the choices of the wealthy or well-connected.

For more info and explanation, try the Wikipedia article on net neutrality. SaveTheInternet.com, or the DemocracyNow! video on net neutrality.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Happy 2nd Anniversary from IL2009

I'm excited to celebrate 2 years of blogging here! I wanted a new place to collect library thoughts so began this blog at IL2007 in order to do just that. This has been a great space for me to explore the random library, education, and literature-related ideas that flow through my head. Sometimes I feel like I should have named this blog schooling.ME because that's a more accurate way to describe it :) Having a dedicated blog space has really helped me to think deeply about all the bits and scraps I read about in my RSS feeds, tweet about on Twitter, and text about with friends.

That said, there are even more issues (relatively speaking) this year at IL as compared to two years ago. I have been following the Twitter backchannel chat and trying to pull out the themes that seem to be dominating the conversation this year:

THANKS. First, thanks to all who attended our presentation yesterday, with @lorireed & @librarianbyday & myself (@erindowney). For the lady in the audience who wanted to learn more about RSS, I recommend my wiki at http://cyber64edu.wetpaint.com/page/aggregators%2Freaders and to follow up with http://tinyurl.com/2rf25c . Good luck and drop me an email if you're not feeling it gel for you!

PART ONE from Bobbi Newman
PART TWO from me:

NOSTALGIA. Despite our love of all things shiny & techno, there was a lot of talk in the keynotes about the solitary experience of reading, the scent of paper, and the sensory cues that tune us into this alternate world of deep contemplation. Although we acknowledge that libraries provide a new and wonderful node of community convergence, walking the line between preserving that singular & personal experience with information and the collective experience with the same is proving difficult for us emotionally. (Imagine how this affects how our patrons see us!)

CONTROL. Directors and other decision-makers are no clearer, according to attendees, about the fact that controlling dialogue online is at best illusory and at worst dictatorial. Transparency and extension of professional trust is the sentiment of the day. The boat has sailed: Internet communication means that we've created a sort of uber-democracy where voices cannot be stifled, no matter how much we may not want to hear them. The new proactive approach to service is to constantly scan the conversation and to become a part of it in productive, positive, and meaningful ways. Not participating is no longer a viable option.

LEARNING. Folks have expressed in various forums that libraries are still doing something very well – being one of those places where true learning can take place and personal passion can be pursued. Traditional schooling and the idea of teaching is transforming mightily, and the attendees here seem to be of the opinion that creating life-long learners is a process happening outside traditional institutions of learning. But this means letting go of our egos and seeing ourselves as coaches or facilitators rather than “teachers,” and is a point of friction.

RADICAL CHANGE/BUREAUCRACY. This dichotomy is not working for people. Librarians need to be set free to experiment, to fail, to try and dabble and poke about in order to bring about the change that's needed to keep up with our users. The world is moving very quickly, and we stand the chance to exponentially lose street cred & relevance. Red tape, delays, paperwork, and other things keep us lumbering along like the dinosaurs (and many see us this way). Flexible, nimble, and ephemeral teams are more relevant as an organizational structure for today's library.

From my perspective, these were all topics we were talking about 2 years ago at IL2007 but today's conversations are much more intense. Transformative change only occurs when we can get our home institutions on board and gain critical mass with our own coworkers. If IL2007 was “try something new,” IL2009 is “DO something NOW!”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Even more e-readers, and mobile thoughts

At our annual Staff Day extravaganza on Columbus Day, Columbus Metropolitan Library's director Patrick Losinski gave a nice keynote about today's library challenges and opportunities. His library concentrates on three key constituencies: young minds, power users, and virtual users. I think these are three sets of people you'd do well to make your primary service groups...

And speaking of power users and virtual users, I've kept rounding up the e-reader news & thinking about the issues. Check it out:

B&N E-Reader goss as well as SCOOP!

Spring Design reader will reportedly feature the Android OS

NYT weighs in:
Libraries & (digital) readers
and also
Brains and electronic reading

Mother Jones on ecological aspects of e-reading

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The coming explosion!

Since my last rather ranty post about e-readers & such electronic devices, the field has gotten crowded with competitors and announcements. 2010 is totally going to be the year of the e-reader!

Time previews some of the new devices

Barnes & Noble will have their own reader for customers

Amazon answers with a price cut & international Kindle access!

Speculations over tablet PCs from Asus and Apple include e-reader capabilities & design

LG's solar powered reader has promising niche appeal, could be huge in remote/rural places & emerging markets like Africa, etc.

And bloggers do the roundup of developments at the AtlanticWire

What this all boils down to, of course, is that computing is becoming even more mobile and interactive. Being able to manipulate interfaces directly a la the iPhone makes tablets ultra-droolworthy, and the emergence of a mainstream e-reader market has come from the desire of the contemporary reader to engage with text flexibly & digitally. Our silicon ways (wouldn't that make a great band name?) have brought us to an interesting juncture - truly ubiquitous computing may be right at our fingertips.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I'm gonna tweet ur old-skool stuff!

One of the newest trends I've been following? Republishing older, public-domain works in installments online. This definitely proves that everything old can be new again! Ranging from the revered and famous to the unknown and pedestrian, people are rediscovering the pleasures of slowly getting a story in bite-sized chunks. Check them out below:

John Quincy Adams' diary entries brought to you by the Massachusetts Historical Society:

Samuel Pepys can help you relive 1666 all over again:

Dracula is republished in real-time on this blog:

Tail-end of the Great Depression through the eyes of a girl in rural Illinois:

The Orwell Prize is republishing the writer's diaries in blog form:

If you know of others, let me know and I will add them to this post.

Monday, September 7, 2009

I downloaded a book (and I liked it... sort of)

I felt as though, after my last post, I should play more with electronic books so that I can speak from a position of experience. So, I fired up my Kindle app on my iPhone - downloaded only because it was free - and flipped through my purchases, such as they were. I had only downloaded a short story and a few sample chapters, so I had no real experience at extended reading on my phone.

Because I've been enjoying the TV show True Blood based on Charlaine Harris' novels, I decided to try the first in her Sookie Stackhouse series. I had flipped through them years before, and thought I might give them another try. After all, reading tastes change and I needed an "average" book to try out: something I would have bought in paperback, not too long or too short, just an average sort of book in order to get an average experience reading using Kindle.

Well, that was a mistake.

Dead Until Dark was a fun little book. So fun, in fact, I was eager to see what happened next in the series. And with an electronic book, all you have to do is hit the download button. It's like a direct delivery system for book addicts; Kindle crack, if you will. The rush of instant gratification was a little magical and a little thrilling. There I was, in the backseat of a car, and within moments I was reading the continued tales of a vampire-dating waitress from Louisiana. I was about as happy as a real book lover could possibly be.

But that feeling didn't last very long after I was done. For me, books are just about as social as anything else in the world. So of course I started thinking of people I would recommend this series to. And I realized that I could recommend all I liked, but that I wouldn't be able to lend them my copies of the books! I'd have to hand over my phone in order to lend out my "books." And in my mind, that's a big loss. One of my big readers' advisory mantras is that recommendations are only as good as your ability to connect the reader and book as fast as possible. Nobody likes to wait, and there's a reason why Big Chain Bookstores engage in the "here, let me hand you the merchandise" practice: it cements the deal.

So while the e-book version was convenient for me as a solitary reader, it led me into a dead end. Even if I was able to "gift" my digital copy to another reader, it would still only be able to be read on an iPhone or a Kindle itself. I think the experience left me a little poorer than it found me - although now I've read the books, I'm not able to share that with other people unless they are willing to pay about $6.00 and go out to find the books themselves.

I'm inclined to think that this hurts the publishing industry more than it supposedly helps them. I rarely lend out an entire series of books, but I frequently lend the first copy in a series to friends and colleagues who are willing to give them a try. How many subsequent sales does that drive? Also, the price point seemed pretty arbitrary to me. I could pay between $2.00-$6.00 for a used paperback copy for the same book locally, and have the residual value of the physical book left over for sharing, etc. In theory, e-books are so cost-efficient to deliver to the consumer that it totally disrupts the distribution model. You only need one copy of the book on a central server to make a copy of for each reader, so I hope more of the profits would go to the writer (but I strongly suspect this isn't really the case). And finally, publishers are losing their cheapest form of free advertising. Nobody I encountered that day knew I was sitting there reading Dead Until Dark. They had no clue. When carrying around a physical book in public, I usually get at least basic questions from people I encounter like "is that any good?" or "do you like it?" Now those chance encounters are all closed off.

So in the pros column, we have convenience and portability as well as instant gratification. But in the cons column, I experienced a lot of frustration in trying to share my reading experience. E-books also seem expensive given their limitations and restrictions.

While I won't be repeating this experience with downloadable audiobooks (I am notoriously unable to listen to books, so it wouldn't be a fair experiment), I do feel like I've gotten more insight on the electronic reading experience. If anyone has thoughts to share, I'd like to hear what you have to say in the comments section.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Just call it my Babel wish...

I spent an hour with a patron the other day trying to figure out why, suddenly, her MP3 player refused to let her listen to audiobooks from one of our vendors. It worked before... and now, it wouldn't.

She just wanted to lend it to her students, and let them listen. It turns out that the software installed on her player is a huge problem for nearly everyone, and she would have to reformat the player to even attempt to get it to work.

Digital Rights Management, in its current form(s), effectively prevents libraries from delivering the information people want and need. DRM controls how a digital copies of audiobooks, songs, and e-books are decoded by the consumer, and is seen as essential to preserving the rights of creators and distributors. While DRM prevents people from easily copying and distributing these works, it also prevents them from easily consuming them. The industry seems unwilling to agree on a single standard that would work on any device, instead choosing to elaborately encode digital files with competing technology.

And that's where libraries come in. We are dedicated to bringing patrons the media they want and need, but now find ourselves at a crossroads: there are stories and information out there that are impossible for us to provide to our patrons because of DRM. The perfect example is the novella Ur by Stephen King. Since this story is only available on the Kindle reader from Amazon, we cannot purchase a copy to lend out. Some interpret the Kindle terms of service to mean that you cannot lend the actual device to another person to read the books, which is pretty draconian, but it is certainly well understood that it is a violation of their terms of service to transfer the purchase to another device – in other words, we couldn't even buy a digital copy of the story to lend out to patrons on their own devices! That's as ridiculous as telling someone that they are only allowed to read in certain rooms of their house, but it's roughly the equivalent.

If we come back to my poor patron who could not wrestle her MP3 player's software into submission, we can also see how DRM can ruin the audiobook experience as well. If you've never attempted to borrow a downloadable audiobook from a library, the pitfalls are many: computer issues, device issues, and software issues – oh my!

First, our library blocks downloading at patron computers. That means that when we are attempting to help a patron with their audiobook, we are typically coaching them over the phone or the internet. The process is especially challenging because the patrons may not be computer savvy in the first place, and may need help with basic tasks that are totally foreign to them. Then you have to determine if their cell phone, MP3 player, or other device is compatible with your vendor – we use NetLibrary/Recorded Books and Overdrive between the audiobooks we've bought and the ones we get through our State Library. Even if their device is listed as compatible, they may have some sort of strange software pre-installed by the manufacturer that cripples the process. Finally, there is usually some sort of download involved to the end user's computer in order to translate the DRM coding on the receiving end – and that may not work perfectly and need additional troubleshooting.

While DRM is a component of digital files that can potentially protect copyright and ensure that authors aren't missing out on hard-earned revenue, the industry has failed in its execution (especially where libraries are concerned). When I hand a(n) (audio)book to a patron, I don't tell them that they can only read it in their dining room or in the bathtub. They can take it to the beach, listen on their commute, or read in bed for all I care. Using DRM to restrict digital files to certain devices or certain software is the 21st century equivalent of deciding the medieval monks got it right by chaining books to the shelves so nobody would make off with them!

While in the past there might have been merit in standing back and letting the industry develop a standard, as in the VHS vs. Betamax format war of the late 1970s, I don't think today's libraries have this luxury. Our patrons are depending on us to deliver information to them that works no matter which device they have purchased, not to sit around waiting to see what sort of highly restricted, totally proprietary system that various publishing industries will invent. It's not out of the question to imagine Rhapsody and the Sony Reader e-inking an exclusive deal with one set of publishers/record companies, while another set decides to provide content only to Amazon Kindles and iTunes. How would we provide access then?

The future of publishing is content that is device agnostic. We need a standard that allows for both ease in downloading and copy protection. And libraries could make this happen sooner than you think.

If publishers want to know what's in it for them, I can tell you right now that it's spelled SALES. Adopt a common currency for distributing media files, make it easy for people to use them, and the money will certainly follow. Libraries are crazy about downloadables anyway because they eliminate the possibility of damage or inevitability of replacement that you get with physical copies of media. (Consumers like all that too, by the way.)

The American Library Association estimates that there are around 123,129 libraries in the United States alone. If each library were to donate just $5 to a common fund, we could start a competition much like the X Prize Foundation. That's a pot of over $600,000 as a prize for developing the best universal DRM system ready for immediate and cost-effective adoption by the publishing industry. I'm willing to throw in the first Lincoln! I've been calling it my private Babel Wish, but I'm open to better suggestions now that I've gone public.

We have a professional obligation to collaborate in ways that expand access to knowledge. This would be one powerful way to do it. Are you in?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Techy Talk via OPAL!

I gave a little talk today to folks from all over the world online! It was delivered via OPAL (Online Programming for All Libraries) and it's still going strong - I'm definitely tuning in tomorrow for more awesome talks!

In these budget-crunching times, an online conference is a great way to network and learn without traveling and spending a lot of dough. I was pleased to talk about education, libraries, and technology... and pleased to see so many interested "faces" in the crowd!

Check it out at OPALescence (my page is here)! It's FREE, it's ONLINE, and it's EASY. Things don't get awesomer than that!!!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Uglies free online!

One of the most popular series for teens is a limited-time free download in .pdf format! Of course, they're promoting Westerfeld's newest book, Leviathan, but who can complain about that? As more and more publishers make their works available in online forms, I can see more and more ways that you could leverage this free/cheap material for classroom use. Of course, the best aspect of the online text is its infinity - instead of having to police limited numbers of physical copies and tell students to hustle and read so others can have access too, every student could log in and read online, or download to their personal device-- no waiting.

On a related note, education stands to gain the most from asking publishers to give up on DRM and concentrate on better ways to maximize revenue.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Book Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen

I reviewed this on my Goodreads account but I think it bears repeating here. Such a compelling work!

Dave Cullen's thoroughly researched and evenhanded account of the 1999 Columbine High massacre is a superior work of non-fiction. Published to coincide with Columbine's ten-year anniversary and drawing on his six-year old Salon piece "The Depressive and the Psychopath," Cullen weaves together the riveting details of the events surrounding the killings. His telling of the story is decidedly non-linear, and creates a roller coaster-style narrative from the beginning. Just as we settle into a section describing the lives and motivations of the Columbine community, Cullen jerks us back into the world of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris-- forcing readers to confront the fact that no "outsider" committed these crimes.

Cullen's triumph may be in the quiet, matter-of-fact way he debunks the commonly held myths about the events. He cites a wide variety of sources to show readers things like Klebold's hidden, unrequited loves and the girl in the library who professed her faith in God (not Cassie Bernall, as was widely attributed, but Val Schnurr-- who lived to feel guilty about telling the tale).

Perhaps the most pervasive myth Cullen shatters is the conception that these killings occurred through a lack of empathy, of bullying gone overboard. It's very difficult to read the psychiatric analysis of Eric Harris and to understand that his grandiosity and rage was merely symptomatic of a psychopath-- that no loving care could have soothed him because he was detached from the normal range of human emotion.

Readers may not be reassured by Columbine, nor filled with hope or optimism. A quiet sense of loss pervades its pages. Cullen tells the story that begs to be told in its entirety both dispassionately and honestly; who of us could ask for more?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Relax. It's just a book.

It's summer, so you know what that means at the public library... a deluge of kids and parents looking for books! It's great to see so many people who encourage youth to participate in summer reading. But why is finding the "right" book so difficult? While there are a lot of kids who sit in the aisles happily riffling through pages and browsing away, some parents are stressed about the process. We get requests at the reference desk for books specifically for second graders, and some parents struggle to define the sort of reading that they believe their kids should be doing.

Parents worry that their kids want to read books that don't seem challenging for them, or that there is a problem because all they want to read is the next in a series, or that they reread books over and over again and are not "making progress." They would like us, the librarians, to fix the perceived problem by recommending books that will alleviate these deficiencies in their kids' reading habits.

It's reassuring and unnerving, I know... but there is no right book. Rereading is perfectly fine. Series fiction is fabulous. Nonfiction titles are legitimate reading. What makes the difference is offering kids a wide variety of reading choices and then stepping back to let them actually choose.

If you think about it, there are few choices that kids get to make that are their very own. Let reading be an activity where they are in the drivers' seat. Help them find a book that has a story that intrigues them, excites them, scares them, or attracts them in some other fundamental way. Let them read widely if that's what they're into right now, or help them find that 100th book about the Titanic or Ancient Egypt or whatever topic they are obsessing about at the moment.

Even more than that, you should be checking out books too. Find a magazine that you like, or a novel of your own to check out as well. Everyone in the family needs to read for pleasure if you want young people to see that reading is an activity with value. They will want to do what they see you doing, so engage in reading alongside your children. Research has even shown that the more time you give kids to simply read for pleasure, not towards a goal or for another purpose, the better readers they become.

So really relax this summer. Don't make reading a chore, and don't stress out about it. Just make it part of your daily lives, and encourage young people to read something of their own choosing. Let the library be an enjoyable haven for both you and your kids!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Welcome to the 21st century library

I am a survivor of many a teen gaming tournament. I've organized and worked at both computer and console gaming events in several libraries, and I can say without a doubt that it's plain hard work. And it's worthwhile work - I'm just as likely to ask a reluctant reader what games they like to play in order to help them pick out a book as I am to ask them about their favorite movies and TV shows. If I was totally out of touch with gaming and other activities that teens love, I would not be able to effectively connect young people to all sorts of media - including books.

If librarians look like they're having fun on the job, it's because we love what we do, not because we get to sit around playing games all day. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Nebraska, where some are accusing the State Library Commission of being wasteful stewards of taxpayer money by purchasing and learning to use gaming equipment with the intent to train public librarians in their state.

This sort of training is needed - in my current library system, we had to hold trainings and create a usage manual for our gaming kits. Using gaming equipment is not exactly an intuitive process, and we need to be just as prepared for gaming programs as we do for any other programs. If librarians didn't study up on games before presenting them to the public, it would be like not reading the book before showing up to facilitate a book group. Or not trying out a database before teaching a patron to use it.

Gaming in libraries is important for several reasons. Reluctant users can see that librarians are aware of and appreciate the activities that are important to them. The library can become less intimidating and comfort can be established for young patrons who are underserved or unserved. Gaming also creates community for patrons who are highly social, helping gamers connect with like-minded people. Libraries collect stories of all kinds, and they can be found in books, music, movies, and games!

But it's not easy to do. There's a lot of work involved. And while it may look like we're just playing around, librarians are gaming with a purpose: to help young people through our doors and into the larger collection - for life-long learning and community building. It looks unorthodox, it may be noisy and boisterous, and it challenges long-held stereotypes about libraries and library atmosphere. Welcome to the 21st century library!

For more information about how our library has phased gaming into our regular services, check out my VOYA article: So You Wanna Play Games? A Start-up Guide for Gaming in the Library.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Our Students, Ourselves

Librarians’ hearts were aflutter today as the New York Times reported on school librarians in their Future of Reading column. Motoko Richs’ article “In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update” features a day in the life of Stephanie Rosalia, a librarian at Public School 225 in Brooklyn. The piece marvels at how she does not simply stamp books and shush students, but rather teaches information literacy. It rose quickly to the #1 slot as today’s most emailed NYT article.

My Twitter network was quite active as we traded links to various responses, and, regrettably, the comments on the article itself. Most dismaying was comment #24 from “suenoir,” a reader who identified herself as a school board president from King County, WA and who felt that school libraries & librarians are superfluous in the face of the Internet and public libraries. She commented:

“If teachers used the public libraries, imagine what could be done with the space now occupied by the library. What if it were a music room? An engineering lab? Students have access to a librarian at public libraries, they do not have access to so many other resources.”

This commenter appears to be affiliated with the Highline Public Schools (Susan Goding, board member, used the email suenoir@hotmail.com in her campaign information which is easily available online). Goding’s district indicates that they enroll in excess of 17,000 students, and one of their secondary facilities reports that they see an average of around 100 students a day in their media center for regularly scheduled classes, not including students using the library who are not specifically scheduled for instruction. That’s an awful lot of students to absorb at a local public library branch!

This article served to remind us in the library community that our patrons do not always easily or readily understand the differences in purpose between different library types. They may think of us all as interchangeable widgets, able to help in any library we might find ourselves in. This is not so. I had a great email conversation with Liz Burns and Sophie Brookover of Pop Goes the Library on just this topic:

Sophie: This article made me stand up and cheer, right at the breakfast table (because that’s where I read it, after a friend posted it to my Wall on Facebook). Stephanie Rosalia is a perfect example of what a great, properly trained and enthusiastic school librarian can offer, which a public librarian cannot: just-in-time learning opportunities for students that relates directly to what they are learning in the classroom every day. She is exactly the kind of school librarian I want to be when I grow up.

edh: Yes, we public librarians often have very little contact with teachers at individual schools despite robust outreach efforts. I know some patrons get the mistaken impression that we’re not concerned with student needs.

Liz: Public libraries don’t ignore students; far from it! But a public library’s main mission is not to be geared towards students. It’s a system geared towards the entire public. Yes, that includes the homeless; teens; seniors; young mothers; people using the Internet; and students.

edh: I loved how the article and video demonstrated Ms. Rosalia’s ability to incorporate all sorts of content in her school library. She’s obviously deeply involved in the curriculum and learning process in her school.

Sophie: School librarians remix and mash up content from all sorts of sources — online, print, audio, video, and more — every day, all with a view towards matching the right content with the right kids at the right time. Public librarians do this every day, as well, but to be a great public librarian is to be a fantastic generalist. To be a school librarian is to be what many of us are called these days, a media specialist. As a media specialist, your area of specialization is your school’s curriculum. You are aware of a wide body of resources, but you home in on the materials that meet the specific needs of your students’ assignments.

edh: Absolutely! I am not entirely sure that the school board member who commented on the article understands the distinction between our libraries’ functions.

Liz: Saying “use the public library, there is so much more we can do with school resources and money” is like trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too. Because while sometimes there are actual joint libraries (with appropriate funding and staffing), more often shutting the school library does not result in additional funding being given to the public library. So there is an addition of students needing instruction, books and materials for reports, but no funds to purchase those additional books or to hire the needed staff.

edh: And some public libraries have restrictions on the materials they can buy – collection development policies can prohibit us from purchasing the books and media that would best address student learning.

Liz: And that’s aside from the loss of the librarian as teacher. When will those students be able to go to the local library? Students get transportation to schools; they don’t have the same access to public libraries. Those students with parents who have the transportation and time will benefit from school libraries; those students whose parents don’t have ready access to cars and who work while the library is open, won’t be able to use the public library. I’ve been in libraries where there are a good number of local kids who use the libraries; and just as many kids who don’t, because they don’t live close enough to the library to walk or ride a bike safely. Public libraries may be full of students; but can one imagine that if they are filled WITH school libraries available, how overwhelmed those libraries would be WITHOUT school libraries?

Additionally, public library budgets are being cut. What would your school do when the public library cuts hours, staff, and the materials budget? Open up the school library? By that time you’d have a dearth of materials missing from the years it was closed.

edh: That’s just for materials designed to support academic assignments – imagine all the great fiction titles you would have missed out on in the intervening years. The public library alone is not enough to supply a student with the choices they need to read widely for enjoyment.

Sophie: A good school library should absolutely have high-appeal leisure reading. After all, AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner are fully 25% about the pursuit of personal and aesthetic growth, and with that in mind, I’ve sunk a large proportion of my own school library’s budget into high-quality, high-appeal books for my students to read for fun. I’ve been lucky enough to have the unswerving support of my school’s English Department, many members of which have brought hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of students to my Library Media Center for booktalks and reader’s advisory, all in the service of year-round independent reading assignments. This collaborative effort has been so successful that I plan to continue to develop and promote the LMC’s fiction and nonfiction collections for leisure reading.

There are so many opportunities for school librarians to collaborate with public librarians to provide even better services and collections to our students, but I think it’s very important, as Liz said, for school and public librarians to spend some serious time educating the general public about the different missions of each institution, as well.

edh: Yes, letting people know about what we do in different libraries is imperative. I find myself also recommending special libraries to students who have a very specific or advanced assignment. We’re lucky to have special libraries in the Kansas City area that will lend freely to the public and assist students with individual disciplines. The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education library is great for students looking at Judaism and World War II, and the Linda Hall Library has a special collection just for aspiring teen scientists among their more esoteric materials. Access to only one library is never enough! If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a variety of libraries to educate them into adulthood.

Erin Downey Howerton is the school liaison at the Johnson County (KS) Library, and is a member of YALSA and AASL.

Elizabeth Burns is a Youth Services Librarian for the New Jersey
Library for the Blind & Handicapped. She is active in YALSA and NJLA.

Sophie Brookover is the Library Media Specialist at Eastern Regional
Senior High School in Voorhees, NJ. She is active in YALSA and NJLA.

This was originally posted at the YALSA blog and is also available at www.popgoesthelibrary.com.