Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The City As Classroom

On Wednesday morning, I had the pleasure to the give the opening keynote to the Wisconsin Library Association Annual Conference.

My name is Mita Williams and for the last 16 years or so, I've been working at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario. If you don't know where that is, Windsor sits just across the river from the city of Detroit as you can see from this map. Some years ago, I played a game that challenged the player to 'map their life' for points. On screen is a map of my life circa 2008.

In 2014 I had the privilege and the pleasure to have a year's sabbatical from work. During that time, I read, and wrote and volunteered and otherwise explored a variety of themes and I am grateful for this opportunity this morning to share with you some of what I learned that year and how it might fit into a context of librarianship and more importantly, into our communities.

The title of my talk is taken from the book pictured behind me: Marshall McLuhan's City as Classroom. It was published in 1977 and was the last book of his career.

Please be aware that I am not a media ecologist. I have a degree in Geography and Environmental Science and I have never taken a single course from Communication studies. But I can say that I have read several of Marshall McLuhan’s works and have read this biography about the media theorist by Douglas Coupland of Generation X fame. I highly recommend it if you too need help trying to understand how a frumpy Canadian professor of renaissance rhetoric turned into a media celebrity for his scholarship.

I'm interested in McLuhan's work for a number of reasons. The largest reason is that I am, like so many of us, constantly trying to make sense of what it means to be a digital citizen of the global village and it was McLuhan who warned us that electronic media would change everything around us and about us long before most.

McLuhan also briefly lived in Windsor Ontario when he taught at the precursor of the University I work at now. In fact, the photo on screen is evidently taken from McLuhan’s time at Windsor's Assumption University.

And if your eye-sight is super sharp, you might see that underneath the words, Marshall McLuhan on that magazine cover are everyone's favourite words 'The Future of the Library.’

According to the work 'McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography', as far back as 1957, Marshall McLuhan said he believed that because the electronic information explosion was just so massive and so powerful, most learning happens outside of the classroom. The City as Classroom follows up on this theme. It's a fascinating book and was written for an audience of high-school students.

That being said, I have to confess, every time I pick up the book, I'm actually a little disappointed because this book does not contain the answers I'm looking for. No, the book is true to its pedagogical praxis and is largely filled with questions and difficult questions, at that.

This is from the first page of the book:

Is school supposed to be a place of work? Is the work done by the students, or the staff, or both? Look up the root meaning of the word school (schola <  Greek σχολή ). When you are at school are you separated from the community? If so, are you separated physically or in other ways?

And that is a good question to ask one's self when at school. It's also a good question to ask about the work that we do.

But for my talk today, I'm not answer that question directly. Instead, I'm going to explore the territory that might lead us to the answer to that question.

During this talk, we are going to explore how we might embed the:
  1.     library / librarian in the community
  2.     collection in the community
  3.     community into space/time

So let’s begin:  How do we embed the library/librarian in the community?

For most of our existence, the obvious answer to the question, "How can a library system can increase its presence in a community?" has been the establishment of a branch library. It's important to remember while there are people who prefer the larger, grander spaces of the Central Branch and its greater choice of materials, for others, a library branch within walking distance is their ideal.

But the obvious answer of more library branches isn't so obvious anymore. In my own community, my public library is facing a budgetary shortfall and so recently the city council proposed that some library branches be closed including the branch in the poorest neighbourhood of the city. When there was an outcry about this loss of service, the city suggested that the neighbourhood be served by a bookmobile instead.  This begs the question, is the bookmobile an equivalent to a branch library?  And if it’s not, why isn’t it?

There is some urgency to this question.

Despite the evidence that libraries are very well used, many communities are cutting back on the budgets of their library systems and thus cutting back on the hours and branches of their libraries. And interestingly, while *public* library branches were scaling back or even closing,  *People's Libraries* - such as those in the temporary autonomous zones of the many Occupy camps sprung up, as well as a variety of other civic and urban interventions such as the Branch project in Brooklyn.

And as we are all aware, Little Free Libraries have also proliferated thanks to our well-intentioned neighbours in our community. There are two such Little Free Libraries within three blocks of where I live. I sometimes peek inside if I have the time to be curious, but I never visit a Little Free Library when I want to read a new book, and I think that’s the key to the experience.  Now I don’t think the people who have a Little Free Library want to replace libraries. If anything, they want to celebrate reading and to contribute to the neighbourhood’s 'gift economy' and as such these libraries don't upset me much.

But when I learn about projects such as the JetBlue Book vending machine project - a project designed to distribute free books to the children the in 'book deserts' of Washington DC - well, that's when start feeling nervous about 'free book projects.'

Indeed, it is worth considering the natural extension of this particular kind of service as The Pioneer Library System in Norman, Oklahoma has done. This branch library is essentially a self-contained vending machine that features books, DVDs, audiobooks and even acts as a WiFi hotspot. And earlier this year they've added functionality for users to transfer ebook holdings from Overdrive to their personal devices.

But there have also been responses from libraries on the services end of the spectrum of the work we do. There are libraries and librarians taking a page out of the urban tactics playbook and going to where the people are by having a regular or a temporary presence at festivals, farmers markets and the like. And by presence I mean, specifically the presence of library staff.

And libraries such as the Cleveland Public Library have gone further with the pop-up library model through their Literary Lots program, a program that "brings books to life" by transforming vacant lots in Cleveland into temporary educational spots for children. 

One of the public library programs that I've been tracking is something called the How to Festival. These festivals are sometimes small in scale while other times they are really quite ambitious like the festival pictured here: 50 things in 5 hours.

What particularly attracts me to the "How to festival" model is that it is designed to involve many non-profit groups and even business partners in order to pull off the breadth and the scale of the event, and in doing so, it celebrates and shares the knowledge that is embodied in the community and found in the residents themselves.

Now, could libraries extend and embed these 'How to festivals' into the community in a more persistent model? And if you could embed single 'how to' sessions, could you then build on them to create a curriculum?  One possible model that tries to do this very thing that I've discovered and have been trying to learn more about is the Cities of Learning project. The City of Learning project - from my understanding - involves or has involved Dallas, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Columbus, Washington DC, and Chicago.

The Cities of Learning project emerged from the Chicago based City of Learning project, which itself grew out of the city’s 2013 Chicago Summer of Learning. In that particular project, more than 100 youth-serving organizations including the Chicago Public Libraries and Mozilla joined together to make a single program that allowed the youth of Chicago to earn digital badges as recognition of the achievements of fulfilling specific creative and volunteer activities.

This project is also the result of the support of the Connected Learning Alliance, which is in turn supported by the McArthur Foundation.  I mention this because it’s important to know that the creative and activity based programming is not an accident but is at the heart of its design.
Unfortunately, I don't know that much more about the Cities of Learning program. I don't know how successful the program is or whether it achieves the ambitious goals it sets for itself. I will tell you that I love the idea of connecting volunteer and creative activities in a thoughtful way that brings youth to libraries, museums, galleries, and community organizations. That being said, when I see badges sponsored by Best Buy it does give me reason to pause. And perhaps that's unfair of me as businesses and large corporations are part of all of communities.

I'm also curious is whether the youth involved are motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic motivations and how the badge structure helps in bridging the gaps between the two. I do believe that it is possible to create a structure that involves points and badges in a way that encourages participation and creativity without actually having to mean anything. And that's because I've played a game that is not dissimilar to Cities of Learning. It's called SF0.

SF0 was originally designed to be a game to be played in the city of San Francisco but really the game can be played anywhere.

"SFZero is a Collaborative Production Game. Players build characters by completing tasks for their groups and increasing their Score. The goals of play include meeting new people, exploring the city, and participating in non-consumer leisure activities"

The map on my first slide of my talk was my entry for the task 'Map your life'. This is my entry for the task, 'Leave clues'.  If you complete a task, do get a certain amount of points. But if you go above and beyond mere completion of the task and you delight other players with your entry, they can assign you additional points. The points, of course, don't mean anything and there are no winners in the game and the game never ends. You just keep playing and exploring.

At this point, I'd like to move to part two: exploring how we may embed our collections into our community.

And to do so, let's continue our journey from the city as classroom to the city as playground.

This is a screen from the massively multiplayer 'augmented reality game' called Ingress. Ingress is a territory capturing game between two sides - the Enlightened and the Resistance - who battle over 'portals' which are only visible from your smart phone. In the real world, the portals are usually sculptures, landmarks, or historical monuments. The screen behind me shows the sculpture garden along the Riverside park that hugs the Detroit river, with the blue team (the Resistance) establishing lots of captured territory south of the river and team green (the Enlightened faction) dominating downtown Detroit.

I have lots of friends who love Ingress and love how it draws them outside and encourages them to explore new places in search of portals and they have even found comradery through Ingress. For me, I found none of those things and I think the game is terribly boring (Ingress fans: fight me).

Mobile devices have long passed the time of being ubiquitous and yet there are still very few games like Ingress. And that's probably for a number of reasons. For one, it's very expensive to run a game that uses the real world as a game board and that's because the real world is big and there generally needs to be some human intervention in its game-layer construction (Ingress was possible because it was bankrolled by Google - perhaps because it's really a mapping and data collection project?).

Also, in order to play the game in the real world, players need to not only have a smart phone, they need one with a generous data plan. Furthermore, because the phone must routinely use GPS for location, the game is a battery vampire. Its battery draw is so considerable, there is a co-branded Ingress portable battery that is for sale.

While Ingress does not thrill me, the latest game yet to be released from Niantic Labs really and truely does. It is another augmented reality game and it's funded by Nintendo and it is called Pokémon Go. According to the promotional videos, the game will allow players to capture Pokémon 'in the wild' and to battle other players. Now you have to understand where I'm coming from - I spend about 3 hours a week at the local game store so my kids can play competitive Pokémon with others in the city and I have a fondness for the game and that particular gaming community.

And so, of all the electronic wearables that we've hyped for- Apple watches, Google glass - the one that I'm probably most likely to buy is this one. This wearable means that you can be notified when you are near such a Pokémon without having to be looking at your cell phone. It's also an adorable hybrid of a Google map's location pin and a Pokeball. You gotta catch them all!

Now while my kids are obsessed with collecting Pokémon cards, my mother has an altogether different obsession. When she travels, she is likely to carry this book. It’s her bible. And she has a lifelist of all the unique birds she's seen. Yes, my mother is a bird watcher, or as she tends to call herself, a birder.

When it comes to birding, I've seen firsthand how new services build around mobiles devices have augmented the book and I'm going to say it - has made printed field guide obsolete. Most comprehensive birding books are heavy and bulky to carry whereas you can carry a birding app on your phone. These birding apps allow for a multitude of images for each species, as well as maps that express normal habitat and migration routes, and also feature sound recordings of bird song which is crucial tool for bird identification. But the feature that makes making current birding apps a bird of another feather is what is known as 'ebird integration.' 

eBird is a free online program that allows birders to report and share their birding observations with their friends and their friends at the Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This capturing and sharing of time-stamped and geotagged sightings provides a multitude of new services and benefits to both scientists and birders. Most profoundly ebird - unlike any print book - can help you find birds that have been recently spotted in the wild. ebird changes the way you bird.

This ability to link the real world with the digital is still unfolding around us. There's much talk about the internet of things but those explorations tend to focus on goods within our homes like thermostats, lamps and garage doors.  That being said, there are some interesting explorations that show that, just like ebird, the virtual/real connection holds a potential to completely reframe our relationships to the world. In my hometown, there are a group of citizens who have advocating that the city government to make the live, GPS clocked locations of the city buses available to the public as they do in many other cities such as Detroit.  

Things change fundamentally when you no longer think of where an object should be and you start thinking about where an object *is.* Just think about being at a bus stop with no bus in sight even after five minutes the scheduled stop. Wouldn’t you like to know where your bus is?

In order to embed our collections into our communities, we need to explore how we can link the real world with the digital. QR codes, for all the derision that they still attract, have not yet been replaced with anything else that does the job better. Or I should rephrase that - there are better ways of embedding information into spaces but these haven't been widely adopted yet. For example, Peter Rukavena, the hacker in residence of the University of Prince Edward Island has embedded a little digital library locally by installing a Piratebox on a street lamp in Charlottetown. The Piratebox provides historical digital objects from the university library's Islandora collection as well as  Creative Commons licensed material.

The challenge of course, is that you have to be aware that there is a Piratebox (or Librarybox) in the neighbourhood in order for you to find and connect to it. It's as if we can't escape the historical plaque as a means to provide context to the outside world

That being said there is a technological space where there is massive potential for augmenting the real world with supplemental information and that is already being expressed with the surprisingly little discussed product Google Goggles. If you have an Android phone and you install and activate this app, Google Goggles will run an image search on every picture you take. It has an uncanny ability to discern and identify objects from features in the landscape. It can also identify books from their cover, it can give you consumer information from barcodes, and can even provide language translation from non-English scripts.

Now, this being a Google product, it is impossible to know whether Google Goggles in a crucial component of how the company envisions the future of search or whether the service will be discontinued tomorrow.

I'm going to return to Google shortly but before I do, I think it's also important to point out another contender that our users also tend to turn instinctively to in order find more information about the things  they don't know much about and that's Wikipedia. If you've been following the work of the organization, you know that Wikipedia has been investing in the retooling of their site so that it works well in a mobile environment. In fact, you can download the Wikipedia app now and use it to discover Wikipedia entries that are nearby -- at least the ones that are nearby that have been appropriately geocoded with longitude and latitude coordinates.

So we have two potential services that can help us find more information about the world immediately around us: one through Google and one through Wikipedia. One is a completely closed system driven by advertising. The other is committed to being ad-free, user generated and user supported.

But use of Wikipedia as a means to express community information to the community is not entirely problem free. The largest problem is that the fact that simply being and existing is not enough for having a presence in Wikipedia - entries must past the muster of 'notability' to the editors of Wikipedia.  Even if you are Jimmy Wales and you write a stub of an article about a butcher/restaurant you've visited, you are going to have an editor questioning the presence of that entry in the site and deleting your page due to a lack of notability.

There are many struggles that are inherent within Wikipedia and the one that I find is particularly interesting is the ongoing battle between of the Inclusionist and the Deletionist factions of the editor core. The issue of notability is particularly problematic because it means that Wikipedia - if it's not mindful - can end up perpetuating systems that already tend not to extend notability to groups such as women.

Wikipedia is also biased towards media vs reality. Every single episode of any cartoon is going to be considered to be notable enough for inclusion. It's for this reason why there are so many more porn stars in Wikipedia as compared to female scientists.

It is essential that we extend this similar type of scrutiny to Google especially as Google Maps informs so much of our understanding of the world around us. It is important to foster a mindfulness towards what is found in Google maps and more importantly, a consideration of what is missing.

If you've ever traveled with small and restless children, you may have done what I have done and try to search for a nearby playground when traveling. And perhaps it is only then when you realize that public playgrounds are features that are generally not expressed in Google maps unless they are businesses.

It is not generally understood that Google maps are fundamentally different from what we generally think of as maps, which are objective representations of space. But the Google map that I see is going to be different from the map that you see depending on what google knows about my searching habits, and perhaps even my habits to where I like to go out to eat.

We tend to think of maps as representations of real and definite things and maps in general are not particular strong in presenting uncertainty. Whenever national territory is contested, Google makes it a policy to appease both sides by showing you the map that you would most likely want to see

This is a story in which a journalist discovers that a particularly affluent neighbourhood in Hollywood that was frustrated by all the tourists coming through their hood as a way to approach the famous Hollywood sign managed to weigh enough of an influence that the directions in Google Maps now tell tourists to walk an hour and a half away so you can see the sign at a distance from the Griffith Observatory, instead of using the trails in the nearby park as a means to see it up close.

It's as if you can control the map, you can control the territory

I don't have many stories like the one of the Hollywood sign but it is enough to give pause, especially as we consider that it wasn't long ago when the express mission of Google was to have all us all wearing Google Glass so that their directional and location information would be served to us directly into our vision.

Another consideration to keep in mind is that we are judged not only by who we are but where we are from - this is a particularly click-baity headline but the story behind it is still an interesting one: some companies price their products depending on what demographic information your zip code betrays about you.

What happens when Google gets to decide what you call your neighbourhood? What happens when the real estate industry has a vested interest in extending the boundaries of neighbourhoods that are gentrifying at the expense of your own.

Even though we all now know that we live in the age of BIG DATA, we really don't know how high the stakes are and it might be many years before we realize how the maps of today shape the territories of tomorrow.

We must not forget that from the 1930s to the 1960s, African Americans were effectively cut out of the legitimate mortgage market due to a banking practice called red lining.  Redlining is named after the practice of outlining on a map in red where a good or service would not be extended to a neighbourhood based on the people who lived there. As you can see, the redlining maps made by banks in Detroit show a pattern that is eerily similar to the maps on the right, of present day poverty levels in the city. It makes one pause to consider what algorithms of today will have also have generational effects.

I remember one particular lecture during my undergraduate degree when my professor introduced our class to the idea that while we can occupy the same places, we - men and women of various ages and backgrounds and orientations - all experience these spaces differently and so they shouldn't be considered as equivalent.

That statement is, in one way, completely obvious and self-evident. But this observation can still be a complete revelation to people who may be less aware how others in positions of various vulnerabilities move through space in a way in order to minimize aggravation or harm to their person.

Behind me on the screen is an image of the Negro Traveller's Green Book which was a travel guide for African Americans during the time of the 1930s to the 1960s to help them specifically navigate their own country.

We all navigate the world differently depending on who we are. Are we in a wheelchair? Are we vegetarian?  Do we need a private place to pray during the day? Are we a dad who needs a bathroom with a changing table? Are we frequently mistaken for another gender? Are we a mother who wants to nurse her child in a private space that’s not a bathroom? Are we homeless and in need of a place to clean up?

For all our apps on devices, every city still needs some exploration to give up its secrets or a community to let you in on them.

How can the library help our communities make their place their own?

Last section! Let's explore space/time.

There was a time - not that long ago, in which many a library reference desk would have its own set of reference sources. Sometimes these would be collections of facts captured on reference cards as pictured behind me, or sometimes they were developed into what we called The Vertical File.  Sometimes these collections were for library staff; sometimes we made them readily available for the public.  Many times, these collections were deeply local and the reason why they were maintained by the library was that no one was doing this work and this was work served the community's information needs.

One of the things that I find so completely and utterly perplexing about librarianship is that we have seemed to give up this practice.

One of the projects that I wish more libraries would consider supporting is the LocalWiki project.  Like Wikipedia, the wiki is a grassroots effort to collect, share and open the world’s knowledge. But unlike Wikipedia, LocalWiki's goal to capture a place's local knowledge to anyone be able to learn about where they live — their local government, the history of their neighborhoods, the schools, the social services such as food banks— every facet of life in their community. If you are interested, please note that the Ann Arbor District Library has had some involvement in the work with the Ann Arbor Localwiki project.

There are, of course, many alternatives to capturing local knowledge. Several slides back, I featured the Wheelmap website which seeks to capture and share places with wheelchair accessibility. One of the reasons why I chose to showcase that particular project is that the information that is shared on Wheelmap also gets add to OpenStreetMap for other organizations to download and reuse and add to their own maps.

OpenStreetMap is a little known that is essentially, a Wikipedia for maps.  I understand that the notion of a map that anyone can change is fundamentally unsettling to many people, but if you use apps such as Foursquare, Pinterst, Github, you've already seen and used OSM.  If you would like to learn more about OpenStreetMap and/or Web Mapping, allow me to plug this three part webinar series from ALA by Celcily Walker and myself called Re-Drawing the Map.

I believe in everyone in librarianship should learn a little bit more about geospatial data because I believe that we are in the process of a gradual– what academics would call -  spatial turn happening in the profession.

Organizations like the New York Times frequently present their data journalism as a map because they know that the map is a visualization that allows their readers to immediately hone in on the place and context that means the most to them. Our readers and our researchers could enjoy the same benefit.

On the screen here is the map interface of a photography collection that’s been digitized from York University using the Leaflet JavaScript library

These, I believe, are some of the first steps towards a future in which we can imagine one day being finding relevant historical documents and images based on where one is standing.

There is much work to be done for such a future to come about. The amazing people of the New York Public Library are attempting to build "civic infrastructure" called the Space/Time directory. The space time directory will be a map with layers and a time slider as well as a discovery tool that turns the city itself into a library catalog.  The data produced by the data will be placed in the public domain and the project is being built so that others will have the ability to build Space/Time directories for their own city.

They write,

"The NYC Space/Time Directory will make urban history accessible through the kinds of interactive, location-aware tools used to navigate modern cityscapes. It will provide a way for scholars, students, and enthusiasts to explore New York City across time periods, and to add their own knowledge and expertise."

Perhaps this is the city as classroom we've been waiting for.

And just in case you thought it was safe not to talk about the future of libraries.... I'm so sorry.

In either 1976 or 1978, a year before or after the City as Classroom, Marshall McLuhan paired up with Robert K Logan, a physics professor from the University of Toronto, to write a book on the future of libraries (because as we know from so many think pieces as of late, the one thing you never do to when you want to know about the future of libraries is to actually talk to a librarian).  That work was never published and the only excerpts I've seen of it online are from an Australian art magazine called Island. Of that excerpt, less than 500 words were excerpted online. From that, I’m going to end my talk of three sections with three quotations or ‘McLuanisms’

This is a strong counter idea to the literal law that we’ve taught that which is that the library is a growing organism.  We might have to find new forms to thrive in our evolving niche.

Libraries need to have better control over the flow and storage of our information we provide for our communities if we want to see that information become embedded within our communities. We need to have systems that allow us to add geospatial data to allow for spatial discovery. We may also want to create the civic infrastructure that would allow our community to learn from and share with each other through us.

I included this quotation not to cast shade on those who are involved in management or who use data to make better decisions but because it brings me relief to know, that for all the foresight that Marshall McLuhan had about electronic information was going to change everything, he was still very confident that the library would remain as an important part of human culture.

And what I love about this particular quotation, is that he reminds us that the libraries mission is to serve inspiration and creativity, which is something I know you have all done and will share during the next three days of the WLA conference.

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