Tuesday, August 28, 2012

BookThing #7: Tubes

I read Andrew Blum's Tubes for this month's Nebraska Learns 2.0 BookThing. The author decided to visit the Internet, offline. He went around the world, looking at routers, cables, Internet exchanges, and data centers. We may commonly think of the Internet as a "virtual" space, not physically real. However, Blum's journey vividly illustrates that the Internet is neither nowhere nor everywhere, but most definitely somewhere. The fiber optic lines follow real-world paths, aboveground, underground, and undersea. They converge in real-world nexuses, not unlike the hub system used for air travel. The data you store in the "cloud" is situated in a real, physical location, possibly in Oregon, where Blum visited data centers operated by Google and Facebook (and had very, very different experiences at the two places). Blum saw enough of the Internet's infrastructure that he became consciously aware of the exact geographic path traveled by his data when he sent an email. The Internet was built the same way roads and buildings were built--by people with tools and heavy equipment digging up the landscape--and this book lets you meet these people and see how they work.

I'll confess that while I was intellectually aware that the Internet was made up of physical cables and servers, I never gave much thought to actually where these were or how they worked. The Internet was, in my mind, an amorphous blob floating "out there." I've always imagined that the greatest threat to the Internet was from hackers, viruses, and other malicious nasties operating in the virtual arena. This book enlightened me to the ways earthquakes and catastrophic weather events could take out huge chunks of the Internet by severing major fiber lines or knocking out an exchange center. On a more prosaic level, the physicality of the Internet helps explain why one web page loads slowly and another quickly, or why a page that loads slowly for you loads quickly for your neighbor--and the next page loads quickly for you but slow for them--if you have different Internet service providers.

From a library standpoint, this knowledge could be useful for troubleshooting Internet troubles. Internet slow? Has your nearest Internet exchange been hit by a storm or quake? Want to store data in the cloud? Where is it, really? Which state? Which country? Whose servers? Is it secure, both physically and virtually? Good things to be aware of, and good things to help make library patrons aware of. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to look under the hood of the Internet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

BookThing #6: I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works

In this month's NLC BookThing I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works, Nick Bilton describes the massive technological shift that is affecting all aspects of society, even down to the way people's brains process information. Even the casual observer can see that just about every traditional hardcopy media (print books and periodicals, music CDs, DVDs, etc.) is in sharp decline, and their digital counterparts are growing explosively. Bilton looks at how this affects the way we consume media, and how that in turns affects the way our brains process information. Instead of reading a long book or watching a long movie with undivided attention, people are increasingly multitasking. The reading of an ebook might be frequently interrupted by visits to various hyperlinked articles, videos, discussions, etc. The watching of a movie might be punctuated with status updates, text conversations, pausing to look things up, etc. This shift toward what some call attention deficit disorder and Bilton calls "richochet working" has implications for how young people about to enter the workforce will do their jobs. Likely, even industries that aren't involved with traditional media (books, music, etc.) will have to adapt to the changing workstyle of their employees.

Libraries are already shifting from physical resources to virtual. This book just reinforces that we have to, if anything, accelerate this process in order to satisfy the digital natives. Libraries will need to integrate better with the Internet to serve our users. Cloud-based integrated library systems might be one way of getting our services out where our users are.

Of course, we shouldn't neglect those patrons who are on the trailing end of this transition. A lot of people come to the library because they don't have access to the Internet at home, and many of them still need hardcopy resources. The book quoted William Gibson: "The future is already here--it is just unevenly distributed." Libraries have to bridge the gap, serving both users who are immersed in this new Net order and users who have never touched a computer. (Yes, people like that still exist, and they still deserve respect and high-quality service.) For librarians, reaching both ends of the spectrum and everything in between might seem like tightrope walking on razor wire.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Nebraska Library Leadership Institute Reunion

Yesterday, the 2010 Nebraska Library Leadership Institute Reunion was held at the St. Benedict Retreat Center near Schuyler, Nebraska. Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, spoke to the assembled NLLI group, telling us about how his library went from being one of the worst in the state to being one of the best in the nation.

His handouts are available on his website.

I took copious notes, typing away on my laptop as he spoke. If you'd like a copy of my full, raw notes (about ten pages, rife with uncorrected typos, questionable grammar, and incomplete sentences), email me at akroeger at unomaha dot edu.

Here's the condensed version. (Yes, I know, it's still tremendously long.) I tried to refrain from inserting my opinions, in favor of making this a summary of what he said.

LaRue started with three lessons from brain science.

1. We are not rational. He illustrated this with a story about a man who sustained brain damage and lost the ability to feel any emotions, the consequence of which was that he was unable to make any kind of decision. When we make decisions, we have a feeling about what's right, and then we arrange the evidence to justify our position.

He gave the following equation for happiness: H = S + C + V

Spelled out, that is:

Happiness = Set Point + Conditions of Your Life + Volunteerism

The set point is a person's baseline. Is someone generally cheerful, no matter what happens? Or always depressed, no matter what happens?

The conditions of life are factors such as whether one was abused as a child, whether or not one is married, etc. The big things that frame our lives.

And volunteer service improves one's happiness, because it has been scientifically proven that it is better to give than receive.

2. We lie to ourselves at a fundamental level. We make up stories to justify our behavior, and then we believe them.

3. Literacy is not natural. For example, reading Chinese triggers the parts of the brain used for images, whereas reading Finnish triggers the parts of the brain used for words. Literacy is one of the most profound innovations in human history. It helps us think smarter.

LaRue then went on to talk about his work with the Douglas County Libraries. He began with a "campaign of shame," telling voters, "We are the worst public library in Colorado. Shouldn't we do something about that?" People agreed. The library won the election by 51%, roughly the same percent of the population that held library cards.

LaRue checked library patron addresses against GIS data and determined that whether they won or lost a particular district correlated strongly with the percent of that district's population that had library cards.

Overall, only 30-50% of the population were library users, which was not enough to win the average election. So they needed to reach people outside the library. They consulted with a socially active women's group that promised they could get an additional 20% of the population to use the library. That group looked over everything the library had to offer and came back with suggestions for graphic design and marketing.

One of the most precious things to every library is its reputation. A library must present a consistent image to its community.

Excluding people who were raised as library-users from childhood, adults become new library users for few reasons, mostly involving major life changes such as a first pregnancy, loss of job, catastrophic illness, starting a business, etc. The main reason a library needs to be consistent in the image it presents is so that people see that image often enough for it to seep into their subconscious. Then, when that major life change strikes, people will remember that the library is an option for assistance.

Marketing is not a survey that asks what the library can do for people. Most people don't know what they want the library to do. They've never even thought about it. A better approach is to ask what people are doing in their lives, or if they weren't doing those things, what they would prefer to be doing instead. Find out the lifestyle changes that are going on in your community, so you can adapt library services to meet the needs people don't consciously think about. For example, want to know when to switch your collection development from music CDs to downloadable audio? Ask about your patrons' internet connections, ability to download large files, and whether they have CD players in their cars.

"Coffee smells like community," LaRue said. Coffee shops in libraries draw patrons. Some people don't like the smell of books--books smell musty, moldy, and acidic. But the smell of coffee makes the library seem pleasant and inviting.

The third most prevalent use of libraries--after checking out books and checking in books--is as neutral ground to meet people. Every type of library serves as a social hub.

When the Douglas County Libraries switched to self-checkout, the circulation clerks were afraid of losing their jobs. The library didn't need a circulation department anymore. What actually happened was, although some circulation clerk positions were lost to attrition, those that remained were transformed into better paraprofessional jobs, complete with pay raises. The former circulation clerks were making displays, doing reader's advisory, and walking around the floor looking for distressed patrons and helping them at the point of need.

With the paras now wandering around answering reference questions, the reference librarians feared for their jobs. What actually happened was that they were freed up to work on larger questions. They went out to meet with business leaders and helped them build a better downtown area. They found the real reference questions that none of the business leaders would even think of taking to the library, and they provided mounds of information to answer those questions. They became indispensable to the business community.

With librarians doing what directors used to do, directors could likewise step up to doing the work the board used to do in the city. Then the board in turn could step up to work more on the state level.

There may be fewer people working in libraries over time, but if we follow this pattern, we should all have better jobs that require more skill, more professionalism, and more intellectual work.

LaRue spoke of the 80-20 rule: 80% of the use is for 20% of the collection. What if 80% of circulation was 80% of the collection? When books were ragged, they weeded them. Anything that hadn't circulated at least seven times in the last year was weeded. They weeded 33% of their collection, and circulation increased by 33%. They try to avoid having any books spine-out on the shelves. Rather, everything is faced out, to draw attention to each individual book. Displays are replenished several times a day (13 times a day at some branches), because that's how fast the books get checked out. At one of the smaller libraries, 60% of the collection is checked out. With such high circulation, they don't need as much shelf space. Effective marketing solves space problems, because a higher percentage of the materials are simply out of the building.

After all of these efforts, the people in the community having library cards went from 51% to 84% of the population. Unfortunately, even with that incredible increase in use, the library still lost the next election. (By only 210 votes!) The hard lesson learned was that use has nothing to do with support. Some users do not support the library. Some supporters do not use the library.

After lunch, LaRue discussed two trends that may transform libraries over the next decade.

The first is rising ebook sales. Ebooks will make up to 20-25% of the total book market by 2012. When 20-25% of the library's collection is electronic, what will you do with all that newly-freed physical space? LaRue had us split into small groups to discuss this question.

My group brainstormed nearly a page of ideas. Our main three were:

1) Diverse community spaces--spaces for large groups, small groups, and individual work--making community.
2) Multi-function kiosks--voter registration, vehicle license renewals, tax help, rapid charging for laptops, etc.--salvation for small libraries.
3) Shorter shelves, spaced further apart, with more faced-out books--improves both accessibility and marketing.

A sampling of ideas from other groups:
- Lease to retail.
- Make space available for public performances.
- Co-branding.
- Partnerships with museums.
- Art center.
- Quiet zones. No cell phone zones. Sanctuary space.
- Theatre room.
- Content creation.
- Realia, such as anatomical models.
- Tech petting zoo

The second big trend that LaRue believes could transform libraries is the self-publishing explosion. Authors are increasingly bypassing large, commercial publishers and publishing through Lulu, Amazon's CreateSpace, etc. Authors make more money per copy than through traditional publishers.

Self-published output is already over two-and-a-half times the mainstream commercial output. Most libraries have little or no self-published content in their collections. We have to change that, or we risk missing the majority of the content produced by our culture.

Libraries could become a part of the self-publishing industry by training writers and helping people create quality content. What if a person could sit down at the library workstation and start writing a book using a book-writing wizard? The book could be edited by members of the community who donate hours of their time. The review board could be made up of people who use the service. (Because libraries rarely buy books that have never been reviewed, having a review board would be important.)

Libraries could be digital repositories for self-published works. Locally self-published titles would be unique to the local library. Even as more libraries embrace shelf-ready processes for traditionally published, mainstream works, building a collection of self-published works would mean increased original cataloging--after all, you're not going to find copy in OCLC for a brand new self-published book by a local author. This could spell a revival for catalogers.

Libraries could network with the self-publishing community through outreach, perhaps even hosting conferences for self-published authors. Generation of quality content takes coaching. Finding a market takes someone savvy enough to increase traffic through the doors and to build an ecosystem in which epublishing can thrive.

After our last break, LaRue talked about the seasons.

Spring was after World War II, when we had the strongest consensus this country has ever known. Everyone was aligned behind common goals. As a culture, we were institution builders.

Summer was the Summer of Love. Institutions were questioned. Doubts were raised.

Fall is the season we're in right now. The challenges to institutions have unraveled them. Everything is 50-50, institutions versus individuals.

Throughout history, the next stage in this cycle has been Winter: War.

We are institution destroyers, but once we've destroyed them, we discover that we can't run society without them. The problem is that institutions don't work without a trustworthy public sector.

LaRue spoke of the need to find advocates--people who love the library, who are NOT librarians--to speak to their organizations and to articulate our messages in language their peers can hear. This is Colorado's Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG).

Lastly, LaRue delivered the presentation that his advocates give to their community and business groups. It was very powerful. Several of us were even moved to tears.

The key themes are:

Libraries change lives.

Libraries mean business.

Libraries build community.

Libraries are a smart investment.


I hope I have captured at least some of the ideas and flavor of Jamie LaRue's presentation to the Nebraska Library Leadership Reunion. It truly was an excellent seminar.


Addendum 7/8/2010: Even with ten pages of notes, I still missed some details. I received an email from Jamie LaRue, in part of which he gently pointed out my errors: "Incidentally, a few small corrections: there were two elections there. The campaign of shame won by 66%. A second campaign won by 51%. And the ladies who helped us with marketing were a two-woman private firm."

Thank you for the corrections. My apologies for the errors.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Flickr Revisited

You know, I had actually forgotten that Thing #36 was Flickr Revisited. It's just a coincidence that I happened to choose today to upload my first batch of photos.

So, after all this time, why did I decide to come back to Flickr? Today, I went to the zoo and took so many pictures that I filled the memory card. After deleting the blurry or otherwise low quality images, I still had 162 good pictures. Normally, I pick a couple of my favorites to share on Facebook or my blog, but this time I had so many good ones I wanted to share a larger batch. So naturally I thought of Flickr.

Of course, I realized that few people would care to take the time to view all 162, so I winnowed it down to 50 really good pictures. But when I tried to upload them, Flickr told me that they would put me WAY over my monthly limit. So I canceled out and did two things. First, I weeded even more aggressively, getting it down to the 35 best photos. Then I shrank every one of those 35 images down to 1024 x 768 pixels. When I uploaded the smaller images, the total consumed only about a quarter of my monthly limit.

So the key to managing Flickr seems to be twofold: be choosy about which photos you share (only the cream of the crop), and be attentive to file size.

How could the library use Flickr? The most obvious way is to post photos of the library building and library events. A public library might host a photo contest for their patrons, centralizing the submitted images to one gallery. The Criss Library, where I work, is posting digitized images from the University Archives on Flickr. It's an easy-to-use service with an enormous user base (which hopefully means it's unlikely to disappear), so it could be useful for any person or organization that wishes to make a photo album available to the public.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thing 34: Online Answer Sites

January and February sort of slipped away from me, but I'm back for Thing #34: Online Answer Sites.

Why do many people go to answer sites rather than the library's online reference service?

One possibility is that people are looking for consensus. Perhaps they think that if they ask a librarian, they will only get that individual librarian's opinion, but if they ask a crowd of strangers, and five or forty people all say the same thing, then that thing is probably the answer.

I can see the appeal of this. When I search Google or Bing, I don't trust the answer I get from the first hit. I check several pages, and if they all say roughly the same thing, then I assume it's "probably" right.

I put "probably" in quotes, of course, because I recognize the possibility that a popular belief may be false. If it were a matter of life and death, I would prefer to consult an expert, perhaps several. I would look for authoritative sources, rather than whatever comes up on the first two pages of search results. But for a general day-to-day question, like "What are QR codes?" (my information quest today), the sum of several websites provides an adequate, satisfactory, good-enough answer.

Some people are more social than others. While I personally prefer to use a search engine and read things that people have already written--without having to log in, create an account, leave a comment, or otherwise interact with the source of the answer--I can easily imagine a more extroverted person wanting to engage in a conversation. They find a forum or answer site or some other venue where they can ask a question or start a discussion. (Note: before you call me on mixing singular and plural in the same sentence, know that I consciously embrace "they" as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.)

The replies to these questions aren't just information tossed out on the web--they are thoughts, ideas, and information directed specifically at the person who asked the question. So there exists a relationship, or at least the illusion of one, between the asker and the responders. And the more people respond to the question, the more exciting it becomes, because the asker has hit upon something that people want to talk about. They have brought together a community.

So why NOT ask a librarian via IM, text, email, or whatever? Well, when I personally have a question I think I need a librarian or subject specialist for, it's generally a research question, often involving primary sources and other things that aren't easily found in a web search. However, even working in a library and knowing how fun-loving and wacky some librarians are, I would NEVER think to use an ask-a-librarian service for questions like, "What neat things might I do with 31 bowling balls?" or "What's the difference between Solitude and Loneliness?" And if a patron asked me questions like those, I would probably be too stunned to come up with a worthwhile response, witty or serious. (Although after a few moments, I would hopefully regain the presence of mind to help them find some psychology and philosophy resources for the second question, and I'd probably gravitate toward art with the first one.) But on these answer sites, it looks like anything goes. So people aren't afraid to ask something really off the wall.

Yes, I saw a lot of questions on those sites that could benefit from a librarian's knowledgeable answer. However, for any number of reasons, people are asking their questions on these other sites. Perhaps these are people who've had negative experiences with librarians (yeah, it happens) or who simply have never been library users and so don't even think about libraries.

For those cases, I think the Slam the Boards movement is great. With ask-a-librarian services, we're still making patrons come to us, virtually if not physically. The Slam the Boards participants are going out into the world. Librarians who provide quality answers on non-library sites not only help the people asking the questions, they also help the whole library community by making librarians more visible. So people who have discounted (or perhaps simply not considered) libraries will realize that librarians are useful and valuable after all.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thoughts on Purchasing Magazines and Books

I woke up this morning thinking about ownership versus access, with regard to magazines and books, both in my personal collection and in libraries. If this is of interest to you, read this post on my other blog. Cheers!

Thing 31: What is the Future of Libraries and Librarians?

I watched the presentation on New Librarianship by R. David Lankes.

Mr. Lankes made so many good points, I can't possibly address them all. I took three and a half pages of notes while I listened, and I can barely decide what to focus on.

He turns the conversation away from the future of libraries to the future of librarians, reminding us that it is the people, not the buildings or the resources, that make libraries and librarianship valuable to society. He suggests that we do not discover the future; we create it.

I really liked his rock illustration. "The geologist did not discover the knowledge in the rock. They brought the knowledge to the rock. . . . Knowledge is dynamic, it's living, it's human, it's how we understand stuff . . . we can not put knowledge on a stack." He went on to talk about how when one reads a book, one has a conversation, not with the book, nor with the author, but with the self.

That really gave me a lightbulb moment. I've thought of librarians as collectors and curators of knowledge, who provide access to information so people can learn independently. (Collection development, acquisitions, and cataloging.) And I've thought of librarians as guides who lead people to knowledge, who teach them to find and use information, if they are unable to do so on their own. (Reference and public services.) The underlying assumption is that knowledge is a thing--intangible, but still a thing--that people can get. But knowledge isn't in the books or the databases. Knowledge is in the minds of living people.

Lankes said, "The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities." That is a mighty tall order, but it's nobler than simply providing access to resources and directions on how to use them. I will try to keep that in the back of my mind, always, as I progress through life. How does my work improve society? How can I make my work improve society?

What does it mean to improve society? Society is made up of people, so improving society is improving people. What does that mean? I feel that my mind has been improved by listening to Mr. Lankes' presentation. So he has improved me, and thus improved society. So if I improve the knowledge of one person through a conversation (face to face or through my writing or catalog records), then I will have improved society. (That is in itself a major mind-shift for me--the idea that catalog records are not directional signs but conversations between librarians and users. Thinking of it that way really highlights just how bad our catalogs suck, even in the best libraries.)

It goes both ways. In the process of improving society, librarians must in turn be improved by society. Librarians are a part of society, after all. We are part of the community. (Forgive me for including myself in the "we" even though I'm not technically a librarian. But I do believe paraprofessionals practice librarianship, too.)

Lankes stressed that we need a deeper sense of why we do what we do. It's fine to know what you do and how you do it, but it's just as important to know why. This reminds me of the quote by Martha Watson, "I really like to know the reasons for what I do!" (This quote is used as the signature of John G. Marr, a frequent poster on the Autocat discussion list, so I see it often.) It's true. If you don't know why you're doing something, then you can't see if there is a better way to do it. And I've long considered process improvement an integral part of my job, so I'm often asking why things are done a particular way.

I am also reminded of an anecdote my friend Rev. Michael Burgess told in a sermon years ago. A woman always cut off the ends of the ham and laid them along the sides of the roasting pan. One day, someone asked her why. She didn't know, but her mother had always done it that way, and she'd picked up the habit. So she went and asked her mother. Her mother said she didn't know either, but grandma always did it that way. So they went and asked grandma, who said that she had such a small roasting pan in those days that a whole ham was too long. The only way to make it fit was to cut off the ends and squeeze them in along the sides. Two generations after her continued the practice, even though their pans were big enough for the uncut ham.

I’m sure libraries are full of cut-off ends of hams. What do we keep doing out of tradition, that is no longer really necessary because our tools have changed so much?

The future of librarianship is wonderful, so long as we choose the path and take each step with conscious awareness.