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.