Saturday, December 24, 2011

A future, fast, cheap and out of control

The end of the year is upon us, and so, like Janus, it's time to take a look backward and take a look forward and see what we can see.

And as if on cue, this week I received two things in the mail that I would say are from our future.

quiet please uni bumpersticker and postcards

The first package contained a bumper sticker and postcards that I had received because I was a Kickstarter backer of The Uni: a portable, open-air reading room for public space.

One of the reasons why I happily supported Uni, was because those responsible for its being were the folks behind the Store Front Library experiment. Like Eric Hellman, also I think the future of public libraries are going to be found within smaller spaces. In fact, I already use my library as a point, instead of a space.

I frequently thought about the Uni this year as I followed the rise and fall (and rise and fall) of the Occupy Wall Street Library. I don't think it was coincidence that the first book to be catalogued in The People's Library was Hakim Bey's T.A.Z : The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism.

The book on The People's Library is still unwritten (but you can help publish it if you donate by the end of 2011) and while much can be said about libraries and the occupy movement, I just want to briefly touch on one particular aspect at the moment: the politics of self-archiving.

My personal interest in this topic is largely about the technology of self-archiving but since a good friend of mine is involved in a really interesting archive project, I'm becoming more aware of the politics of self-archiving and what it might mean in a larger context.

By 2006, there were already several substantial collections of girl zines that had been donated to university libraries, including the collections housed at Duke University and Barnard College . I decided to visit these collections. It was quite amazing to me that a zine produced by fifteen-year-old queer girl in 1994 in a print run of 30 or so copies could find its way, only a decade later, to a rare book library half way across the continent. There’s no history of such girls’ voices being remembered or valued, so how were their zines suddenly showing up in rare book libraries and archives? That’s where this project begins—I was interested in exploring why women of my generation, women who grew up during the second wave feminist movement—had not only carefully collected the documentary traces of their activism and cultural production but were, only a decade later, donating their collections to established archives (The Scholarly Feminist: Archiving with Kate Eichhorn).

After the OWS Library was destroyed by the NYPD, the question of how the library should re-build was raised. This concern was most pointedly raised by  this stream of tweets from Jason Scott of Textfiles, so I decided to capture it in a Storify stream:

I felt obligated to capture that conversation in the moment because I knew that if I didn't I'd never find those lines again due to Twitter's poor capacity to find particular tweets even in the very recent past.

My inability to find my own words prompted me to install a version of ThinkUp months back and I highly recommend it to all. Without it, I wouldn't be able to find the tweet that will lead us to the end of this post.

In July, I shared the fact that I have an affection for the game, Nine-Men's-Morris, otherwise known as Mill. That post was read by Josh Judkins, someone who I've never met, but I have worked with as we were both game-runners for Jane McGongial's Evoke. Mr. Judkins is a Community Manager at Ponoko, a site that hosts "host tens of thousands of user generated product designs, ready to be customized and made into real things with the click of a mouse."  This is the necessary context that explains Josh's response to my post:

(I was able to display this conversation using Aaron's Twitter Viewer. Thanks Aaron!)

Six months later, just in time for Yuletide, I received this in the mail:

nine mens morris

The postal service is transportation; 3-D printing is teleportation.

The future is here and it's in distribution.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Little Pony: Libraries are Magic

Here's my biggest #firstworldproblem I've experienced today: I accidentally deleted my daughter's favourite My Little Pony episode from our DVR which just happens to lack an undelete, recover from trash or undo option. The emotional fallout from this simple slip of the finger is going to be epic.

So this morning I had a little rant over coffee about how the User Design of this cable-company supplied DVR machine had deliberately made deleting shows easy to do because they really didn't want these machines to save shows forever.

My husband very gently challenged my conspiracy theory: "Then why does the DVR have so much memory and can store so many programs?"

And my reply was that while our DVR could sort of act like a family's library of favourite TV episodes and movies, we should remember that our DVR was really just a walled-garden of cable-company provided content. If it was something like a library (like Boxee) it would have the option to add shows from other sources, like from DVDs purchased elsewhere. And because it would put viewers needs first, it would have an undelete function.

Then, for a brief moment this morning, I curled up on the sofa with my Kindle DX and resumed my reading of The Information: A History, A Theory of Flood, happily highlighting passages that I would, late that day, synch up with my Readmill bookmarklet.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

The ebook services academic libraries offer up at the moment - MyiLibrary, SpringerLink, EBCSO eBrary - are just like my DVR - they possess some of the functionalities of a library, but they are really just a glorified subset of ebooks that never leave the confines of the parent company and are never joined by other books from other sources.

I'm convinced that libraries have to start making, or sponsoring, or commissioning library software for readers.

Because if don't, others will.

I'll tell you this, if I had to read and know fifty books, as Ph.D students are asked to do, I would seriously consider buying them all from Amazon just to make use of their Daily Review feature:

This a feature that puts the readers needs and personal goals first.

Not that such work is in my future. What's more likely is that I'm probably going to be getting My Little Pony on DVD from Amazon.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Internet is like Detroit

If you only know me from my blog, then I suspect it's not particular obvious to you that I am actually a person of the book.

Books have shaped me such a way that I'm unable to even imagine who I would be without them. On class trips to Toronto (during the eighties), when my classmates would disperse to record or clothing shops during our too-brief "free time", I would make my pilgrimage to Pages where I would stock up on books that our local bookstore, while admirable in its own way, would never carry. I bought graphic novels, Whole Earth Catalogs, zines, and books from RE/search.

Kids these days don't have to go to the Big City in order to experience thrilling and potentially dangerous ideas. They have the Internet. As David Bowie told Avi Lewis (in the nineties) during an interview: "The Internet is New York City."

Or, as Roger McNamee puts it: "The Internet is like Detroit. If you look hard there are really compelling things in there but if you're not careful, you'll get mugged."

The above quote is from his TED Talk, "Six Ways to Save the Internet" and I think it's worth watching if just for the point that he was making with that not nice thing he said about Detroit: the overwhelming popularity of the gated Apple app-iTunes experience exists because most people prefer safe licensed content from corporations than from the Weird Wild West of the Internet.

And I mention all this because I've been thinking a particular future of the library in which the Big Six media companies decide that they would rather not deal with libraries at all. Combine that future with our present when austerity budgets prompt politicians to challenge libraries on the matter of lending popular materials like magazines, video games, and first run movies and it looks like libraries of the future might have to operate at the edges of media, instead of from its centre.

I mention this all because I have realized that - for much of my reading life - I have felt most comfortable about the edges of our culture. I like the left-of-center and the fringes. I love the first-person weirdness of the Internet. And I don't want to be all hipster about it, but it's the local and "authentic" of the Web that moves me - as I know it moves many of us.

So, I just might be okay with this particular future of libraries. 

To beat my metaphor to death: Maybe the library can become the New York City of the small town. Maybe it can be the place that brings forward the most interesting aspects of Detroit to all of us.

That is, if we don't get mugged first.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Who decides what a library should be? Those who use it or those who pay for it?

Within a week I've read that two our finest public library systems are confronting challenges to their very being by the very bodies that fund them.

On Tuesday it was reported that Toronto's Budget Chief questioned whether the the Toronto Public Library should be lending out movies or non-English materials and suggested that by cutting these collections, the TPL could maintain it's hours of service. Presumedly, the mission of the library is just to serve up books in English, because according to the budget chief, it's a bad thing if a library is a community centre.

This is how the City of Toronto rewards the TPL for being the second-most used library system in the world.

Meanwhile, the focus of the New York Public System is currently in flux as it appears that the board of trustees is investing in future that serves less books to scholars and provides more space to the public.

Here's the sad tale from my own backyard: the building that houses the central branch of the public library is deemed no longer "modern enough" for a library, but strangely, modern enough to host a call-center that was threatening to leave the City of Windsor if it's needs were not subsidized by the city.

Of course, it's all more complicated than that and I do recognize this. A building filled with books never read is a crypt, not a library. And on the other end of the spectrum, if you are spending all your time looking for sponsors for events and content that will attract the widest number of people, then you are probably in the entertainment business.

Still, there's a commonality to these three stores. Those who are paying for the library are trying to call the tune; what's inside the library is no longer the domain of the librarian.

I think I would prefer the library to be shaped by those who use it... if just for the reason that they are more likely to see us as a community centre than a cost centre... or call centre.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The future in one word: platforms

In this post, I'm going to expand a small piece that I had written in March entitled, What will be the iTunes of ebooks? (it's about what should be the platform for ebooks and why this decision is so very important).

One of the reasons why librarians don't talk very much about ebook platform choice is because, by and large, we've already decided the matter. Libraries have made their choice, voted with their dollars and their energies, and have overwhelmingly selected Overdrive as our platform.

Yes, we have outsourced ourselves with an ebook platform that betrays many of the values that the public admires us for in exchange for a user-experience that be described in any variation of the word horrific.

I don't think it's too late to change our minds. In fact, I think there will come a day when we will have to change our minds.

And that's because no platform can out-perform the Internet in terms of speed, participation, and innovation. And while is is very, very large, it will never contain all the reading material that you would like to read.

Like many, many people, I do a tremendous amount of reading all day (emails, activity feeds, blog posts, news articles, and - uh - journal articles) and most of my reading is material is done online. Only a fraction of my reading is deep, slow reading - and only if I have enough strength to read in the 20 minutes immediately before bed. As I have said before, the web is my reading platform and Zotero is my library.

But imagine this: instead of investing in Overdrive, what if libraries invested in Readbility instead?

I use Readability myself.  Most of the time I use it as just as a means to read long text on the screen in a less cluttered, more beautiful, more readable way.  Sometimes I use Readability as a means to get long text pieces from the web into my Kindle DX. And sometimes I use it as a way to easily clean up and import documents into my Zotero library.

Now, I understand that it's difficult to see where a library would interject itself between the reader, Readability, and the author and publisher.  To be honest, I'm not sure about it myself but I think it's worth thinking about because we need to start thinking about the entire health of the publishing / reading ecosystem before the entire thing crashes and Amazon re-builds on its disrupted remains.

I should say that I'm not entirely invested in Readability as our only hope. There are other options for corporation-agnostic personal libraries, like Calibre. The reader centric services of LibraryThing and Goodreads could develop into something more 'platform like' but it's more likely that a service like Readmill - with its open bookmarking and annotation services - is closer to what I hope could be the reading platform that a library could be proud to invest in.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How could we build a digital Peoples Library?

I had been planning to write this post earlier this week after I had provided some other posts for necessary context but I got the flu.

The flu is the enemy of the perfect and ... oh  who am I kidding the flu is going to be the enemy of the good here too... but... I just want to  show this now - the day after the NYPD destroyed the People's Library of the Occupy Wall Street movement because today is the the day that they start thinking about how they want to rebuild. That is, if they can rebuild.

That being said, I want to make it clear what follows isn't advice to the folks running The People's Library. Also, my forthcoming suggestion for the People's Platform for ebooks is suggested as only an augmentation of the library and not as a substitute for the whole.

Really, I'm just using the example of the OWS Library as a thought experiment, which is:

How can people build a digital Peoples' Library?

The catalogue of the OWSLibrary is online but, of course, not the actual books themselves. That's entirely reasonable since only corporations and institutions (who generally act as weak brokers to corporations) are allowed to "share" ebooks.

But I have an idea. It would be simple to set up and maintain. It would be legal. And, if extended, it could still dependent on a particular public space.

My suggestion is to load the available EPUB versions of the books in the people's library into Calibre (and back up that laptop regularly off-site in case of violent attack).

Now, if you use ebooks and you haven't heard of Calibre, you really should read this great introduction to software from Professor Hacker. Otherwise, here's the tl;dr summary: Calibre is an open-source corporation-agnostic platform of ebooks which allows the reader to add and correct metadata, tag and organise material, and allow the reader to convert ebooks from one format to another so they can enjoy ebooks that are exclusively sold to an e-reader that they don't own.

Oh yeah, it also has it's own webserver, so it can act as a book-server that deliver texts through the web, through a network, and through email.

Let me show you how could look like.  For this thought experiment, instead of a 5,000 item library, I have used as an example of, um, , a short "Occupy" reading list of 8 books. Actually, of only two books because of the eight, only two are available as public domain EPUBs (the rest are candidates to be unglued). Regardless! I have put them into the Calibre on my laptop in a library called Occupy Time!

Now, I turn on the web server function of Calibre that now serves up ebooks in this library to all those in my wifi network.  On my mobile device (in this case, an iTouch), I am running Stanza that is able to look for available OPDS servers on my home wifi network, and using it, I can find said books from the Occupy Time library, download them into my own personal library.

The bookserver standard that makes this all possible is The Open Publishing Distribution Standard and the folks largely responsible for it are from the Internet Archive. It's one of the key components of the their ebook lending work they do with a small group of public and academic libraries through the Open Library.  There are e-readers other than Stanza that support OPDS and they include Aldiko, QuickReader, FBReader, and Ibis Reader.

Now, I was hoping to get more into this but I'm still weak and only sleep can cure me.  So let me end with this: Calibre is open source and the OPDS is an open standard. We just need to Occupy our Time so people can share a library --- that has a backup.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Escape Velocity of Ebooks

I tend to share my viewing and reading recommendations passively through my delicious feed or actively through my Twitter feed, but today I’m going to make an exception. 

I think this talk by James Bridle of BookTwo does a very good job of revealing some important insights about the nature of book or specifically, on the natures of texts. It’s called Everything is the same only different  and the link will take you to the video and a brief outline summary for those who don't want to commit the 20 minutes it takes to watch it. I won’t spoil it for you, but James gives the best response I’ve seen to the surprisingly common complaint that ebooks just don’t smell like regular books

One the reasons why I am fond of Bridle’s work is that his thinking isn’t outlandish and speculative; it’s grounded in the present and the past. When he starts speaking about the velocity of books (at the 5:25 mark), he begins by introducing the viewer to Penguin Specials - a series of shorter books grounded in the issues of the day. 

There has always been interest in having books available to help the reader make sense of the latest chaos that has descended on her world. And I heartily endorse Bridle’s assertion that it not that ebooks has reduced our capacity to read long texts - we have always have had difficulty finishing long books. It’s just that now, companies such as Amazon have the data gleaned from Kindles that backs up and betrays this once secret shame.

As a personal interjection, I would like to point out that these days, this rapid-response market isn’t being served by print books publishers but through print magazines publishers instead. Go to the magazine section in your local grocery store and you’ll see lots of special commemorative issues, mini-cookbooks, and fairly up to date guides for buying technology or to help you buy Apps. It’s not surprising that the first book that I know of about the Occupy Movement is being published by YES! Magazine

While I can buy “This Changes Everything” for my library, I cannot buy Summer of Unrest: Kettled Youth for those trying to make sense of the UK students riots of 2010 and that is recommended by Bridle in his talk.

At least I don’t think I can. But even if I’m able to buy a DRM-free copy that the publisher will let me lend of an unlimited number of times, where would I put my library’s copy of Summer of Unrest? 

Which brings me to a topic that I think has not been explored enough in libraryland: What will be the library’s platform for ebooks? 

The time to address this thorny question is fast approaching. The velocity of books requires it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Practice makes the profession

The word is out: the kids can't search.  This is something we librarians knew for a long time now. And we should know: librarians are experts at searching. That's what we tell ourselves. We're experts!

As those who have read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers know, expertise is understood to come from 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.

And this is why I'm worried.

You see, I remember what it was like to work in a library *just* before the explosion of use of the World Wide Web. I had the privilege of working at the Periodicals Desk at the Toronto Reference Library in 1997. In those days, we would have two or three librarians working the desk and that desk would regularly have line-ups sometimes up to twenty people deep.

Now this is going to sound quaint and old-fashioned, but this was a time when you could develop a sense of a library's collection from working at a reference desk. A good reference librarian knew a library's treasures and the secrets it could bring up. Reference librarians were good and there were some among us who were maestros of reference work.

And for most libraries, that time has passed.

Over the last ten years, the traffic at our library's reference desk has dropped. Significantly.  In the past academic year, the library staff of my place of work answered half the questions at our desks compared to the levels of 2003/2004. In spite of being surrounded by students working away on library computers, I have spent a four hour desk shift at my library and in that time only answered three questions.

And this is why I am worried.

I would like to make the case that not only our search expertise came from the practice of the reference desk, I believe that the resulting tenets of information literacy also came from this labour. Because librarians were exposed to the common problems across the disciplines, they were able to see patterns that could not be seen by individual teachers. It has always been clear to librarians that students don't have an innate ability to understand genre, that they lack knowledge of the scholarly publishing cycle, and that they don't understand the importance of language choice in search.

Without the practice of regular searching, how will our expertise of search evolve?

This lack of practice is one of the reasons why I think many librarians have outdated concepts of regarding searching. Boolean searching makes sense when it can used to create a result set that is manageable and comprehensible by a reader. But nowadays, when even the complicated nested boolean field searches using defined vocabulary still results in sets of the hundreds of thousands of records, then our strategies (and perhaps our tools) need to change. It's time we take the time to understand how relevancy is generated.

When I started this post, I intended to end this piece with an argument that user-experience work could be seen as a possible extension of our practice to ground our work.  The connection came early this morning as I read this post and recognized some of my own motivations in my current UX web work.

Watching statistics behind the scenes of a website can be addictive. You don’t control them, directly, but you can endlessly tweak and investigate your data, experimenting with better and brighter strategies for luring visitors.

Playing with a website like this is a kind of game, made all the more compelling by how much you care about the outcome. You want your site to thrive. You want its numbers to go on increasing, for ever—one of the most universal and powerful of all the dynamics involved in digital play.

But, I'm personally dissatified with this line of thought. First, as important as it is to make accessible, understandable and useful library websites, reducing our  communities to just clicks and pings in aggregate cannot be an end unto itself. It's just too dehumanising a practice -- which is one of the reasons why SEOs always seem so scummy.

And I don't mean to be even more of a downer, but I'm afraid that even good user-experience work grounded in the values of librarianship is also under threat.

Why? I am of the opinion that libraries' continuing enthusiam for propietiary library systems and discovery layers, mean that we are removing our ability to change, test, develop, and improve how relevancy is defined in our search tools.

Why is this ability so important? Well, these propietary systems challenge some of our very values of our profession.  Why is it even acceptable that EBSCO Discovery Service returns results from their databases first before the results sets of their commercial competitors?  We would never allow this sort of promotional weighting in the print manifestation of these works - it would be unethical.  So why do libraries invest in such services when alternatives that allow transparency and even the ability to change the relevancy of search results exist? Sadly, I think it's because the mechanics of how searching works has already fallen out of most of the librarian's practice and their understanding.

The seed of this this post was planted sometime over the course of hours sometime this past this weekend as I was doing the physical labour of list making. I had given myself a challenge of creating a list of Massey Lectures in a format that could be reused by other librarians. By doing so, I created a list of almost fifty books using Evergreen, Bibliocommons, Amazon, RefWorks, Zotero, the Open Library, and a text editor. I probably spent too time on this particular project but when I finally finished this work, I found that had a much stronger understanding of about these services and could feel their relative strengths and weaknesses. The work itself taught me.

I finished that project this Monday. On Tuesday, yesterday, I met up with a faculty member in the History Department who asked me questions about how best to present the work of over 1500 citations on a web site.  I am getting more of these types of questions. Other librarian colleagues are now meeting and working with faculty who are suddenly recognising that preparing, preserving, organizing, and presenting collections and other digital work requires a professional understanding that they lack.

Sometimes when you tell a person that you are a librarian, they respond in a very odd way. They say, "wow, I'd love to read books all day". I used to think (but never say) "what a stupid comment" but now I don't think that comment is quite so dumb anymore. I think that the people who say such things just think that the way to understand a library is through the reading of books.  Of course, that's not how a librarian makes sense of a library. But there is a truth in what's being said: the librarian makes sense of the collection by interacting with it.

With fewer and fewer questions being asked at desks, how are librarians going to make sense of our collections now? The future of our profession very well might depend on the answer.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Designing for sharing and then for re-sharing

About a month ago, we did a soft launch of our new A to Z list of indexes that we put together using Drupal 7. When we re-built this page, we had two specific design goals: the first was improve statistics collection and the second was to make our licensed resources easier to share among faculty, staff and students. And it ended up that our our two design criteria were both addressed by the same solution: to use URL shortening software that would embed cumbersome ez-proxy information while also tracking clicks on these new easy to share links.

Now that we have a month's worth of data, I thought I'd take a look to see how the new re-design was doing. What I was really hoping for was some evidence that folks were emailing links to each other. And on that count, my hopes were dashed. From our most popular link has received about 900 clicks, it appears that only one came from within an email (under "various")

But what was surprising to me was how many hits were 'direct' hits. If fact, almost 1 in 10 click were done without coming from the A to Z list at all. It's particularly odd because you can't easily bookmark the link in question (although you can bookmark ... but no one has seems to have done so yet). I've been trying to figure out what's happening here and I *think* that some folks are now accessing databases by typing its name into the URL field aka The Awesome Bar. If that's right, that was completely unexpected and totally cool.

Right now, these short urls are only available on our A to Z page and in some of 'library news' items that come from our blog which are re-transmitted to the library's Twitter and Facebook accounts. While no where obsessed as much as a SEO, I have been keeping an eye about how our little promos have been received by our campus community.

I don't have enough information to do any sort of generalization at the this point, but I can tell you that last week's campaign to promote our Cochrane Collections were pretty much a bust while our Reading List for Future Journalists was much better received, being retweeted a couple of times to over 700 potential readers in addition to our own existing 280 Twitter followers and 900 or so folks who "like" us on Facebook. "Likes", however, don't mean that they've opted to read the updates. According to Facebook, the reading list gained over 300 "impressions" while our "Evidence based reviews: trials, error and the God-complex" received about half those views.

Now, making up book lists is much more time consuming than it seems it should be. I should know. This week, in honour of the 50th Anniversary of the Massey Lectures, I thought I would create a blog post promoting our library's available Massey Lectures in a way that could be re-used by other librarians and other readers for their own use.

I've have been a fan of the Massey Lectures for some years now and some of its books in its series have been influential to my own thinking. This is why my first list of Massey Lectures was started on in 2007.  And so I thought I would take this opportunity to create not just a shopping list - but reading lists promoting the Massey Lectures. To start off, this weekend I made a list for my local library using Bibliocommons.

My own library makes use of the Evergreen OPAC and it allows users to easily add items into 'book-bags' that can be made for public viewing, generate an RSS feed, and can be exported into RefWorks. And just for kicks, after creating my collection of Massey Lectures, I exported my RefWorks collection to create this public Zotero library.

But I wanted to do more. I wanted to create a list that could not be used, but could be re-used in ways that I couldn't forsee. This recent post on Drupal4Lib was foremost on my mind:

I mean, just think of how many libraries are out there and how many hours are spent having to cull together the same raw materials for lists like the Massey Lectures or annual award winners. Or more sobering, how many lists are not created and shared with our communities because they take too long to make. We could do better!

So I have been slowly working through this particular list of Massey Lectures on the Open Library. Unfortunately, Open Library's ability to export lists as HTML, JSON, and BibTex isn't functioning properly at the moment. So I've created this text file of Massey Lectures names, with links to cover images to the corresponding sections on the CBC Massey Lectures website. Trust me, it will save you a lot time if you are so inclined to make a blog post similar to like the one that I just published on the Leddy Library New Blog.

And even though the list export function isn't likely to be fixed by the time that Adam Gopnik reads his first Massey Lecture tonight at 9pm on Radio One, I'm still going to work on my Open Library Massey Lectures list.  I have come to really enjoy working on it during the moments when I'm too tired to move and too tired to read. I add descriptions to these books, add tags, clean up author entries and add cover images. And it's very gratifying work. The cover of Inscape and Landscape that I scanned and added last week already appears in our own library catalogue and presumably in every Evergreen library catalogue that opts to use Open Library as a source for cover images. And all the detailed records I'm creating in Open Library may one day also be found in many Evergreen library catalogues -- and maybe even in Koha ones too.

I would be very happy if someone ends re-using any one of the lists mentioned above. I'd be delighted if someone is inspired to make a similar list on a completely different topic. Sometimes I think that the possibility of surprise and delight is a great measure of what work is worth doing.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Finding Ada is is Losing Loneliness

And in answer to the question "How does it feel to be be the only woman on the court?" she answers simply, "Lonely."

With the exception of spending two hours at the reference desk, I spent my working day trying to figure out how to add missing user information to a staff directory I was building in Drupal. By the time I had to leave work so I could pick my daughter up from daycare, I still hadn't figured it out. Once home and the kids were settled, I flipped open my laptop and kept searching for answers. About a half-hour later, I happen to stumble upon a workaround that just might work...

I don't have a computer science degree - I'm just learning as I go. It's hard work that is mostly insanely frustrating punctured with brief feelings of feeling supremely gratified. I'm lucky because I know that I have friends and an community that I can go to if I really get stuck. And I'm very grateful for this.

Still, the work is... well, it's lonely.

I'm not really up to unpacking that statement so I'm going leave it as it is.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day and I want to introduce you to two women that I recently heard speak at DrupalCamp Montreal.

Jen Simmons starting designing websites in 1996 and is best known for designing the default theme of Drupal 7. Her presentation -- "It's Not Your Father's Web Anymore" -- about HTML5 melted my brain. She is 42. I am 40. I mention this because it's hard for me to explain how profoundly re-assuring it was for me to hear her to give a brief history of the web that was filled with personal and historical touchstones that resonated with my own past.

The other woman I'd like to introduce you to is webchick aka Angie Byron. Her presentation "Getting Started in the Drupal Community" was the kick in the ass I needed to actually get involved in the do-ocracy of the open-source community. To hear that from the person who now is the co-maintainer of Drupal 7 admit that it took her ten years to go from 'open source cheerleader' to 'open source contributor' and that she herself couldn't explain why it took her so long... well, it made my own ten year journey to getting to the same point -- feel much less lonely.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A commitment to librarians is a commitment to scholarship

I have seen the Enemy of the Library. I have seen it up close. And I have just seen it claim a victim.

The Enemy of the Library goes by different names. It takes on several forms. But you can recognize The Enemy by what it says, as each manifestation always says the same thing:  ideas are a form of property that can be brought and sold by private corporations. The Enemy opposes all those - even America's Founding Fathers - who suggest otherwise: that the field of knowledge is the common property of mankind.

There is a particular manifestation of this enemy who's movements I have been following with particular interest as of late. It goes by the name of Access Copyright.

Access Copyright exists in Canada as a legal body that collects payments from institutions that offer photocopying. These collected payments are then redistributed to publishers and to a pool of authors. Digital titles only represent only slightly more than 1% of the body of works that Access Copyright represents - but that hasn't stopped this organization for demanding a non-negotiable tariff be set upon universities at $45 per student.

This tariff is especially egregious because academic libraries have already negotiated and paid for many of the rights for digital works to be used in secured course management systems, library course reserve systems, and online course packs in support teaching and research. No matter, says The Enemy - only we can negotiate with publishers about how digital works can be used - not libraries.

I am very proud of the libraries and the administrations of the universities of Canada who have stood up against the heavy-handedness of Access Copyright.

I am especially proud of these institutions because opting out of Access Copyright does admittedly require more labour in the securing and communicating of the permitted licensed rights of the digital texts being used on campus. But this is work that can be done and it is work that is being done (I'm getting back to it as soon as this post is done).

I am particularly disappointed in the University of  Western Ontario for signing on to Access Copyright's terms. At 29,000 FTE (2010), it appears that by doing so, the university has committed to pay $1,305,000 annually for many of the digital publishing rights that had already been negotiated by its librarians and material already designated as Open Access. It is particularly disappointing because the librarians and archivists at UWO are currently on strike for equitable wages.

To commit to librarians is to commit to making available knowledge for all. It is a commitment to scholarly communication. It is a commitment to scholarship itself.

The Board of Governors of UWO has decided that it would rather spend $1.3 million dollars rather than pay their librarians and archivists a fair wage. This gives the impression that this was a decision that was made for ideological reasons rather than for being fiscally sound.

I call on the The President and the Board of Governors of UWO to make a sound investment in its commitment to research excellence and to negotiate a fair wage with their librarians and archivists so their work of collecting, organizing, preserving, communicating, and sharing the record of human knowledge can continue.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The library as a point instead of a space

In one day, two things happened that fundamentally changed the way how I use my public library. It surprised me - maybe it will surprise you too.

It was a Saturday afternoon in July when I took my five year old son and my three year old daughter to the main branch of my public library. We do this on a fairly regular basis. But what changed that day was this: my five year old son decided that he was no longer interested in the toys kept in the children's section. He walked in, surveyed the available toys, thought a moment, and then he demanded that we go home immediately.

I can't say I blame him. He's an active five year old and the only book that he will curl up and pour over on his on accord is his Lego Star Wars Dictionary. It doesn't occur to him to go to a library to *read* as reading is for bedtime and sunlight should be spent playing. We have been going to the library for years and I have never seen him do anything but ignore the bookshelves.

So maybe it's my fault that I did not force him to find his own books from the shelves and that my ability to find awesome books for him has led to learned helplessness on his part. But I don't think so. Bookshelves that are crammed with thin picture books are really difficult to browse through - even for an adult, much less a four year old. And as someone has flipped through a lot of kids books, I can say that many of them are very uninspiring. Of course there are gems in there but they take some work to suss them out.

And the only reason I have been able to spend the time flipping through the picture books at all is because there there are toys in the library. The kids can play and mostly stay still while I can find books - at least books in the immediate area. At the central branch of my public library, the chapter books are in the next bay and the children's non-fiction books are in the next bay after that. And the adults books require an escalator ride upstairs.

Which leads me to my second epiphany. That same trip to the library was the first one in which I actively used the WPL mobile app while at the library. And it fundamentally changed my library experience. As my daughter was playing, she looked up at me and asked if we could borrow some 'Dora' books.  So, I pulled out my iTouch, logged in and searched to see if there was any available. There wasn't, but I could hold the screen up to my daughter to ask her which one's she would like me to place a hold on.  It is ridiculously easy to do this with the Bibliocommons app.

Bibliocommons app

Bibliocommons app

Bibliocommons app

Forgive me for saying this, but since that moment, I can't help but feel that it is too much bother for me to drag a bag full of books and two kids (one protesting madly that she still wants to play in the library and other demanding we go home now) all around the first floor and upstairs to get books. Luckily, I don't have to. My public library allows me to place holds on books (including those that are even on the shelf at any branch) and doing so means that they can collect my books for me to pick up at the checkout desk in one fell swoop.

And do I miss the serendipity of browsing the shelves? No. Nope. No way. If you are an active public library user, then you already know the truth about browsing the shelves: books you really want to read are never in the library - they are being read.

Since that day in July, I've use the library more than ever. I use Bibliocommon's many lists dedicated to children's literature to find great books to read to our five year old (right now we are reading The Phantom Tollbooth). Every two weeks, I place a bunch of books on hold, and three or so days later I run into the library, pick them up, run out and then go pick up my daughter at her daycare just down the street. We don't go to the library anymore.

It is only now that I completely understand why public library gaming events are so important. How else are we going to draw young people into these spaces (or to rephrase this: into their spaces)? With the promise of shelf-browsing? Of reading in public? Really? 

I mean, I'm an academic librarian and I'm now actively avoiding browsing the shelves.

And now I have to figure out how to deal with the disconnect with the services that our public library delivers and the unsaid understanding in academic librarianship that learning how to shelf-browse is some sort of essential skill for later life.

Friday, August 05, 2011

The best time to learn to compute

They say that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

I didn't learn how to code twenty years ago, but I am doing the next best thing.

I thought I would share with you my progress so far in case you wanted to get a jump on your own twenty year deadline. I think it's especially important to share this sort of personal experience because while there are many, many resources and many helpful folks out there to help you grok, the sheer enormity of what's available out there can make it difficult to get started.  Maybe my coping strategies might work for you.

About a year ago, I made one of the best investments in learning more about computing and the web: I signed up for web hosting at Dreamhost. Now compared to the cost of an iPad or fancy laptop, Dreamhost's price of $9 a month is cheap as chips. But as hosting plans go, $9 a month is actually deemed expensive as some other companies offer hosting services that are closer to $9 a year.

(Be warned that these cheaper services can bring on additional costs as these companies will constantly try to ding you for for services that you need to be constantly vigilant about opting out of. As well, these companies set very low limits for traffic so if you can be dinged for bandwidth once you've signed up. Personally, it was these annoyances that made me switch - but you can go with whomever you'd like. Just make sure you get access to SSH...)

I am flogging web hosting as your computer learning platform for a number of reasons. First, I am one of many who believe that WordPress is the gateway drug to programming. It doesn't matter if you don't want to be another under-appreciated blogger in the world. You can create a WordPress site just to document your learning process... because if it's one thing I learned about computer culture, they appreciate the recursive.

Now, you don't actually *need* to look at the raw code that runs a WordPress site, but one of the very nice things about Wordpress is that its lid, so to speak, can be popped off easily enough for one to look in and poke around. You should try it. Before you know it, you might be hacking PHP just so you can use a fancier theme, for say, your personal or professional portfolio.

Web hosting that allows for SSH - otherwise known as secure shell access - means that you don't need to buy a new computer or partition your existing to start learning how to do command line computing and scripting. I've been trying to improve my own bash skills and I've found this series of free videos from Lullabot a great help.

The reward of getting comfortable at the command line is that you find yourself being to install some really cool web services for your own devices. I've installed ThinkUp to archive my tweets and FB updates and will hopefully installing Yourls so I run my own URL shortener. Later, I hope to have my own copy of Ushahidi installed for mapping fun.

It's funny - when I started writing this post, I was feeling really good about myself because I thought I had figured something tricky out. I have since realised that my celebration was premature and the nut before me remains uncracked. Sigh. More disorientation and frustration and screaming WHY U NO WORK at my computer.

But there's no point wishing I had done this twenty years earlier.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Librarians versus city councillors

In the most July 2011 issue of WIRED there is a small article about the promise of open government data called "Why Open Data Alone is Not Enough". I've been following the Open Data movement from afar so most of the ideas in the article weren't new to me, but I will say that the stories of tragic, unintended consequences were.

Those involved in libraries might be interested in particular to its last paragraph:

The concern that open data may simply empower the empowered is not an argument against open data; it’s an argument against looking at open data as an end in itself. Massive data dumps and even friendly online government portals are insufficient. Ordinary people need to know what information is available, and they need the training to be conversant in it. And if people are to have anything more than theoretical access to the information, it needs to be easy and cheap to use. That means investing in the kinds of organizations doing outreach, advocacy, and education in the communities least familiar with the benefits of data transparency. If we want truly open government, we still have to do the hard work of addressing basic and stubborn inequalities. However freely it flows, the data alone isn’t enough.

Investing in the kinds of organizations doing outreach, advocacy, and education in the communities least familiar with the benefits of data transparency? Like, oh shall we say, libraries?

But we know that's not happening now. Not in our schools. Not in Toronto. Not where I live.

I'm still flummoxed whenever I sit and try to figure out why institutions dedicated to learning and our civic life are closing libraries in schools and neighbourhoods. I only have partial answers: our brand is books while the world watches video; the library is now associated with the lower rather than middle class, unionized workforces are vulnerable targets in our current political climate...

In light of these threats to our library systems, I'm working through this possible response:  public libraries should actively develop and promote services to specifically assist citizens in working with and against governments.

I say this because I think it goes almost without saying there is a definite need. Beyond Open Data, there are so many other instances when governments seem to exist only to further empower the already empowered. Indeed, it appears that our governments are purposefully designed to discourage mass participation - as illustrated in this short and recommended TEDx talk by Dave Meslin called The Antidote to Apathy.

While there is a need, this course of action would be with some risk. We could alienate some of our users who shy away from the conflict of politics. And if we were successful, we could end up competing for the same job as our elected city councillors: From Catherine Porter's essay "The boxer: A guide to getting in the ring with City bureaucracy" from the anthology, "Local motion: The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto" :

Imagine a community activist resource centre on the ground floor of City hall. It would be a place where you could drop in, tell a librarian your idea and be directed towards resources, experts, case studies, maybe even professors at universities who are into just that stuff. Wouldn't that be great?

...'That's what a councillor is supposed to do,' Councillor Adam Vaughan said when I described my dream community activist resource centre to him. Why bureaucratize a system meant to help navigate bureaucracy? he asked. Good point. But not all councillors are like Vaughan, who prides himself on helping community builders make changes in his ward, and even community-minded councillors don't always like their communities ideas. What if you great scheme is a bike lane and your city councillor is on the record for saying anyone who rides a bike on a major street deserves to be hit by a car (i.e., Rob Ford)?

So, should libraries get into the government activist business? Should we be serving up classes on The Freedom of Information Act along with our government documents?

Well, I think the answer depends on what you think the answer to this next questions is: Who is going to protect our public libraries from cuts and closures? Your city councillors or your community?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Organizing is what librarians do

On Saturday, I gave a talk at TEDxLibrariansTO.

I feel I should add that the theme of the day's event was "Librarians as Thought Leaders" and this challenging theme was occasionally misunderstood. The speakers were not intended to be put forward or understood as "thought leaders". The idea behind the event was to explore the idea  how librarians are thought leaders in our society.

This deliberate and shift of focus away from library to librarian is oddly rare in libraryland - and I hadn't even noticed it's absence until TEDxLibrarians organizers Shelley Archibald and Fiacre O’Duinn brought it to my attention. And because of their dedication to this pursuit, I was reminded of the importance of showing our public face as we do the public's work: as keepers and cultivators of the cultural commons, as loremasters, as defenders of intellectual freedom, providers of tools and ideas who protect a refuge of the slow and good that is being encroached by the corporate and consumer. Their work has has reframed our work.

The following is the text of the talk that I gave as I tried to respond to their challenge. I offer my profound thanks to all those involved in TEDxLibrarians who made it such a wonderful and meaningful day.

Organizing is what librarians do

The beginning of the Gulf War – the one in 1991 – coincided with the beginning of my first year of university. And what I remember most about my first undergraduate year was the constant feelings of fear and loathing – most of which was self-loathing as my miserableness was just the normal anxieties of the first year experience. But – looking back at it all – I was also affected by the backdrop of the war and this led to changes in me in ways that I didn’t appreciate until now.

I opposed the war. But no one knew that - because I found I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t really have the words, the arguments or even a borrowed voice to frame my discomfort with what was happening. Everyday I would pass the TV room of my co-ed residence, the guys who were very enthusiastic about the war would hold court as CNN played in the background. And I would say nothing. Talk of war was everywhere and none of it reflected the doubts and fears that I held.

I felt angry. I felt mute. And so I kept my head down and stuck to my calculus, my biology, my chemistry, and my physics.

I was at university when the next invasion of Iraq took place – the one that started in 2003. Except this time I was on another campus and I wasn’t a student anymore - I was a science librarian. And while it has been 8 years now, I distinctly remember being in my office with fellow librarian Lisa Sloniowski  and we were talking about this inevitable war, about the fraud of the 'weapons of mass destruction’ and about the shamefulness of the mass media that were beating the war drums instead of asking the difficult questions and who not giving a voice to those did not consent to war in their name.

And then Lisa said, 'we should do something – give me the phone'. I watched her as she called a couple professors to see if they'd be interested in speaking on a possible panel about Mass Media Coverage and the war. They said yes. And within five minutes, it was decided upon and an  event was set in motion. Within hours we had space in the library secured and so we sent upon the work of promoting the panel discussion with a poster, fliers, a supplemental website dedicated to alternative and international news sources, more phone calls and email.

Days later we had 100 people show up in the Leddy Library staff lounge for our panel discussion- more people attended this even than for any talk or workshop we had held previously held at the library – and, beyond the numbers, we knew it was a success because after immediately after the thank yous and goodnights, the room filled with noise as neighbour turned to neighbour to talk amongst themselves of what they had seen and heard and they their carried conversations out of room.

And as they were filing out, one student came up to Lisa and told her that she had walking around all day on campus, feeling miserable and unable to find a way to act or react or speak to what was happening. But she didn’t feel that way anymore and she thanked us for hosting the talk.

I am standing here to extend an invitation to all of you. I believe that we - our profession, our community, our country, our planet - need more collaborative events to bring us together. We need more opportunities to host conversations. We need more opportunities to change the conversation. And so my invitation that I am extending is not to a particular event - but a personal invitation to all of you to organize an event for others.

Event organizing takes work - it can take a lot of work. And I will admit that inexperience might lead to mistakes that probably could be avoided - but I strongly believe that the act of organizing is within your ability.

In fact, it has never been easier to organize a gathering. With the Internet, we no longer have to rely on mass media outlets to decide if they are going to promote our event for us or not.  Many of us are already connected, networked and linked to friends and friends of friends, and beyond. And with the Internet, you can host conversations before the event, during the event - way beyond the confines of the room.  To be an organizer, all you need to do to have a concern that you know are shared with others. And if you host an event, those who attend will so grateful for a outlet where their voices can be heard and their questions be raised- that they will not ask for your credentials.

Really the biggest barrier to organizing is within ourselves. To be an organizer, and dare I say, an activist, all you have to do is to overcome your fear of speaking in front of other people.

Trust me – I know this fear very well. Very very well.

But I also know some of the ways how to overcome these inhibitions which is both the how and the why I am speaking to you today.

If you feel that you need a strategy to overcome your fear of public speaking, I would recommend sleep deprivation as a means to dull the parts of your brain that would normally talk yourself out of doing such things.

Sleep deprivation is the only reason I can give as to why, on a Thursday morning in May I sent an email to to a local blogger who I only kinda sorta knew - and asked him if he’d be interested in doing a Jane’s Walk with me on Saturday.

The Jane in Jane’s Walk is Jane Jacobs – the patron saint of live-able streets. A Jane’s Walk is a free neighbourhood walking tour that anyone can give about any aspect of a place that they care about. The idea behind the the Jane’s Walk is to get people more in touch with their environment and with each other. These walks can be held at anytime but since 2007, the first weekend in May is when most of the Jane’s Walks are held in many cities across the country and in other countries around the world.

Now the story of my Jane’s Walk takes place in 2009. I was on maternity leave - hence the sleep deprivation - and I had  already been walking through my neighbourhood once and twice a day for months. And maybe I would have chickened out if I didn’t get a response from that first email I sent, but the blogger that I sent that email to was Chris Holt and he responded almost immediately - with a “it’s a little late but what the heck. Let’s do it. And hey, let’s invite Andrew too”

Now, I don’t suggest that you should organize an event in only two days but I will tell you that it is possible. It is especially possible if you decide to co-organize an event with established bloggers who already have a readership who share the same concerns as you do.

This is how we organized the first Jane’s Walk in Windsor, Ontario. On Thursday afternoon, we met at our local cafe to create a possible route and hash out the stories that we wanted to share. That night we wrote about the upcoming walk on our respective blogs. On Friday, I test-walked our proposed route,  put up some posters, and sent out some more promotional email. On Saturday we all met again at the same neighbourhood cafe but this time there were about 30 other people there to join us. And then we all had a beautiful walk through our neighbourhood.

A Jane’s Walk has many of the qualities of what I consider a perfect collaborative event.

  • The barriers of participation are next to none. There is no cost to walk in your neighbourhood.
  • You don’t have to be an expert. You just have to care about something enough that you want to share with others
  • The walk is on your home turf - so you are speaking from a place where you already feel comfortable
  • giving a tour requires no expensive technology - it requires no special skills
  • The event is scalable - you can give a tour to one other interested person to up to 50 people - maybe even more
  • And the walk provides ample opportunities to those in the group to effortlessly talk to each other about what they are seeing and what you are saying. You aren’t just having one conversation - you are hosting a moving salon
There have been long-established organizations dedicated to leadership through public speaking like the Toastmasters Organization. But what I personally find fascinating is the emerging practice of new collaborative events that are provided for as models that are meant to copied. Jane’s Walks are an example - Independently Organized TED Events are an obvious example, and Pecca Kucha talks I think are a particularly interesting example.  Pecca Kucha - which is Japanese for chit-chat- is a format that allows participants to speak on either a particular topic or any topic, as long as its conveyed in 20 slides at 20 seconds a piece. Now it's tempting to pass off these type of events as a form of Powerpoint karaoke but I think that would be a mistake. There more going on here that meets the eye.

These particular events give an opportunity for individuals - regardless of their day job- to step forward as an educator, an advocate, an artist, or an entertainer. Speakers can learn the finer the points of public speaking from each other and through ubiquity of online video, they can also learn from the best speeches from other events held earlier and elsewhere. And these events are also a learning opportunity for the volunteer organizers too because they are able to host an event that comes with a built-in support network able to answer questions and provide encouragement - as well as setting the guidelines.

Like a franchise, these events set a certain set of expectations for the audience – and by doing so this reduces the fear of the unknown that can scare off the less adventurous around us.

But franchise isn’t the right word to describe it. Fractal is better. Small local events don’t feel so small when you know that they are the same shape of something larger - and that they are a fundamental part of something larger.

That’s what I think ChangeCamp was for me. I had heard Mark Kuznicki - the originator of ChangeCamp on the radio talk about this particular unconference and how various cities across Canada were hosting their own ChangeCamps to bring people together to answer a particular question. The question was “how can we re-imagine government in the age of participation?”

That question personally resounded with me and I was very interested in this odd thing called an  unconference. At that point, I hadn’t been to one myself but I had been dong some reading about them and I was really curious. Could it be true? With a minimal agenda, rules, technology, and facilitation, why were so many people writing about how much more they enjoyed an unconference than to the real thing?

Well, after attending three unconferences and after organizing the Windsor-Essex ChangeCamp with three others, I think I can tell you why. Unconferences - otherwise known as camps - have no audience - they only have participants. The event is designed so that any question or discussion on the subject at hand can be raised and those willing to talk about that issue can find each other. And because the day’s conversations generally occur in small groups, sitting in a circle, even the shiest among us can find a safe place to speak. And in essence, that’s all an unconference is: a given time to submit topic ideas, the creation of the schedule that assigns a place and time dedicated to those ideas, and then people sitting in a circle taking those ideas on.

As an unconference only requires space, chairs, a blank wall, post-it notes and pens - they can be set up quickly. In fact, they are now taking place as soon as a crisis hits - literally. CrisisCamps are now an established practice that bring volunteers together to help NGOs in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. But don’t wait for a disaster to host an unconference. If your community is home to those who have voices but no place to be heard, then you already have your reason to host one.

Because this is TEDxLibrarians, let me add this: librarians are positioned as perfect hosts of an unconference. We have access to public space. We serve all sectors of our communities : small businesses, the arts community, service organizations and we strive to serve all residents. As Barbara Fister has said, unconferences are cheap, accessible, and open and as such they are are lot like libraries. Libraries are a gathering of people and ideas mixed together.  Democratic dialog cannot and should not reduced and relegated to the comment wars on newspaper websites. The public needs a public space to come together..

OK. So now I have told you my harrowing stories of survival. How I survived a panel discussion, a walking tour and an unconference. But I would be remiss if I did not warn you of some of the possible consequences that were unforeseen due to my actions.

In my experience, I have found that you host an event for your community, you will find that people will want you to do it again. People will see that you are willing to take responsibility for your and they will reward you with more responsibility. They will want the conversation that you help start, to continue.

No other aspect of my work has had the evoked same demand from my community.

In April I was told at a party  that there was a friend of a friend who really wanted to give a Jane’s Walk, but wouldn't because no one had asked him to do it. I regret that I didn't get his contact information, call him up immediately and put forward the invitation myself. But I didn't think it should work that way. I didn’t think it was my responsibility.

But now I understand that I was wrong and for some people, they do need an invitation to step forward. In order to see this important work through, it's not enough for me to stand in front of you and tell you how fulfilling this work is, how much you can learn, how much it’s appreciated and how much this work is needed by your community.  An invitation must be given before it can be received.

And as for myself, the next time I organize an event, I’m going to bring along someone who has never done it before. Because this is how we start a movement, this is how we build and maintain community  - this is how we keep the conversations going - one invitation at a time.