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.