Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Access Conference + randomness = design for joy

My daughter is 4 years old and she produces - at school and at home - a tremendous amount of drawings. At the end of every week, there are piles of Anna's art that I photograph before it is  discretely recycled. Within a week, every table surface in the house is hidden under her artwork again.

My son is 7 years old. He isn't as inclined to sit down and just draw like he used to when he was 4. And when he does put marker to paper, it is either an interpretation of LEGO Star Wars or LEGO Ninjago.

Somewhere between 4 and 7, my son started preferring playing in the imaginary landscapes of other people instead of his own mind. I think most kids are like this.

But it could be worse.

Sometimes I sit beside my daughter in the morning and we both grab pieces of paper and she immediately starts working away at something, whereas I just sit in front of the blank and perfect paper and think, what should I draw. And I'm paralysed.

I've been thinking about art and drawing and creating and designing because I've been thinking about 3D printers lately. And I've been thinking about what I would like to print with a 3D printer and nothing is immediately coming to mind.

It feels so daunting. What thought would you like manifested in form?

If you provide a 3D printer to the readers in your library, will people print out items that don't originate from a cartoon universe?  The answer will probably (and thankfully) be yes.  That's one of the lessons that I took away from the session "Discovering New Dimensions" session from this year's Access Conference.  Dalhousie University Library bought and made available a 3D printer for the campus and through outreach and word-of-mouth, interested faculty and students came forward with research-related models and replacement parts for tools to be printed. As did the attendees of a local Comic Convention.

It's been over a week since I've been to Access and this post is a summary of some of what still sits with me and what I have been still turning over in my in my mind since then.

Of all the wonderful presentations that I listened to in Montreal, what has been occupying my mind the most has been Bess Sadler's Closing Keynote address: Brain Injuries, Science Fiction, and Library Discovery.

In this talk, Bess Sadler told us that she recently suffered a brain injury and has been on disability leave from work. As she has been recovering, she has been learning more about the brain and how it functions. And what she experienced and have since learned has changed the way she thinks about the work that she does and that we, as librarians, do. From her talk:

When you engage in an activity that is intrinsically motivated, you’re not looking for some outside reward. Those of us who are very lucky are able to find paying jobs that sometimes involve flow activities for us. When I’m really in the zone, writing software can be a flow activity for me, but other days, when I’m slogging through something, it’s that paycheck that keeps me going. And I believe that most library users are the same way. Of course we’ll always need to serve folks who are slogging through a paper they don’t really want to write, but I’d like to spend some time thinking about how we might enable as much flow in the library as possible. I want to figure out how to make our collections genuinely pleasurable to use.
[You know who also talks about the feeling of flow in their work? Game designers. And as a related aside,  Game designer, Jane McGonigal also suffered a brain injury and her subsequent recovery also led to a re-thinking of her work and the nature of productivity, resilience, and joy. I meant to ask Bess if she has seen Jane's TED Talk of this story and I even had the opportunity - but I  forgot.]

It's this line from the above that I keep coming back to in my mind:

I want to figure out how to make our collections genuinely pleasurable to use.

It's telling the very librarians who are largely responsive for the shape and capacities of our digital library systems and collections recognize that they are building efficient systems at the expense of serendipity and of the expense of joy. Something feels wrong, and at some level, everybody knows this.

When describing physical browsing, people used emotional words. They felt joy when they encountered that serendipitous find in the stacks. They felt tranquility when they browsed the new books shelf in the reading room. One sociology PhD student described to me in loving detail her favorite place to study in the library. She described the lighting, the smell, the quiet, the beauty of her surroundings, the pleasure she felt at running her fingers over shelves of books on her favorite subject. Another student told me, with clear distress and frustration, that he used to spend every lunch hour in the new journals room, happily browsing, but now felt at a loss because the library had cancelled their print subscriptions and he had to rely on online access. If he knew what he was looking for already, he said, online access was very fast and efficient for getting it, and there were times he really appreciated that. But he also felt he had been robbed of a great pleasure, and one of the ways he felt most comfortable staying current with research in his field.

Our users wax nostalgic of spending hours in the library shelves, browsing and smelling paper. But if you press them, these same readers don't miss the experience so much to actually to tear themselves away from the screen in the office, and spend those hours today in hopes of finding something they won't recognize until they see it. They are also trading joy for efficiency.

Aaron Cope - who gave a wonderful opening keynote at the conference - also talked about a lost opportunity for his workplace to spend their re-branding efforts on telling and showing that what they do instead of reducing themselves to particular activities for target markets:

Second, we are bucketing our audience in to kinds of aspirational typecasting usually reserved for buddy movies – things like the "new" and the "hip" and the "mommy blogger" and so on – instead of simply talking about what we collect and why.

You should read his keynote too and look at the alternative posters he made that can not help but convey a sense of wonder and curiosity in those who cast eyes upon it.

Aaron suggested that museums, archives and libraries, would do well to surface - as much as possible - their entire collections and put them on the web in a way that anyone can explore them, connect them, showcase them and make sense of them.

Also related: when Jane McGonigal designed a game for the New York Public Library, she didn't use the opportunity to teach players how to find a book; she designed a game to help them write a book. 

When I was in library school, I remember particular conversation I had with a good friend of mine who happened to be very interested at the time in Tarot card readings. I remember her telling me that some people believe that Tarot cards are able to divine the future through the energy transmitted in one's hands. But, she added, that even if you don't believe in such things, Tarot cards are still useful and interesting because even a reading of random cards makes you consider possible interpretations of your own life in a ways  that you might not normally think of, just because of habit.

For reasons I can't explain, that insight really struck me and while I don't do tarot readings, I would have to say that I have had an interest in randomness for some time now.

In fact, I asked Access speaker Kim Martin who spoke about serendipity (point of order: the schedule says that her colleagues were also there and speaking but they were not) about the relationship between randomness and serendipity. I wasn't able to write down her exact answer, but the gist of it was that they should be considered separate things. But I'm not so sure.  And I'm not the only one who thinks that they might not be so separate as just days ago, Bess Saddler posted this on twitter:

I guess this is a good as time as any to announce my own little project that I've been working on about libraries and randomness. The project is a series of iterations of a very simple idea: choose and share a random passage from a random book from the library where I work. The project is called Bibliomancy named after the practice of divination by books, although I'm hoping to divine new Oblique (Research) Strategies rather than the future.

And what I find particular gratifying is that this work has already inspired other folks to make similar things. John Fink made a bibliomancy program written in Ruby and Doug Satori made this Bibliomancerbot that selects random passages from random books in Project Gutenberg.

I don't consider this work a form of art (high, low, or outsider). I think of this little programs I've written as "toys".  And from then I make and play games for myself and the books I've chosen (using Jesse's Schell's definition of game as "a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.")

Here's one game I'm working on. I'm playing around with the idea of making and releasing paper cranes that bear a passage and the call number of the book that contains it.

If you ask me why, I will tell you that I'm doing this to get across the idea that every book in the Leddy Library has a unique call number. We often forget that call numbers are not obvious entities to non-librarians.

... but the real reason why I'm making paper cranes is because since I was a child I have been captivated by origami and I don't do it often enough and I don't know why because it brings me joy.

Bess Saddler gave us some suggestions on how we might try to design systems that bring back joy and resonate with the our emotional selves. One suggestion was to make bring our collections down to a scale that they could be understood and navigated by our physical selves. She also said this:

So these students who use augmented reality are really excited about the library becoming digital, because it means they can use the library collections as if they are using the library in Hogwarts, or Discworld, or any of the other fantasy worlds that they choose to inhabit. And I adore this idea. I mean, first of all, these students are really excited about their university’s digital library interface. This is my kind of escapist fantasy. But also because, this seems kind of do-able. We have an API that can give us a virtual shelf list now, we’d just need to render it in a 3D game engine. Actually, someone already made a video game that includes the Unseen University Library from the Discworld books.
I would happily spend many hours exploring library collections in a beautiful virtual setting and I don’t think I’m alone in that. By tapping into video games we could tap into spatial reasoning and memory, aesthetic pleasure, and all of the visceral reactions that the video game industry has put so much work into.

Libraries are filled with books that contain compelling and understandable fictional worlds. These are worlds of shared experiences.  Just like how my son finds it easier to draw from the Star Wars universe and play with other kids who automatically understand what the rules are for playing in that universe, we might find it easier to use narratives to explore our collections. I'm paraphrasing, but also at Access, Aaron Cope said something along the lines of this: "a collection opens a narrative space were we can explain ourselves and find meaning."

Years ago, I read a post on Kottke.org (at least I think it where I had read it) in which a designer (or was it an illustrator?) gave advice to those who were starting out in creative work and who were worried that they had not developed their own personal style.  I can't find it now, but what I remember of it was this: if you create many things and solve lots of problems and while doing so draw on all aspects of yourself, you will automatically develop your own personal style because you are already unique, and your personal style just needs to be drawn out.

And yet, for non-artists, once we leave childhood, many of us are unable to draw, write or create anything, even for ourselves, even in private. But there are (oblique) strategies to restore that sense of joy. If you want to start writing and drawing again, I highly recommend Lynda "Funk Queen of the Universe" Barry's "What it is."

It is easier to draw from the fictional universes that are readily available to us than to design something from scratch. And yet, with 3D printing and with our collections - digital and otherwise - we have an opportunity to build almost anything. So let's design for joy.

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