Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Working with new technology

My instructor, Dr. Ball, is having us blog weekly as an assignment for class. I have yet to directly address the reasons for this blog, so this week I will. Her instructions read:

Every week I want you to write a 300 word blog posting, basically a journal entry, about what you are feeling about working with technology: what it is like to be trying something new, how technology makes you feel, working as part of a team, not knowing what you should be doing, etc. Do you get the idea? I want you to reflect on all aspects of this experience except the service learning piece. My primary goal, besides having you become more confident bloggers, is to have you develop a better understanding of how library patrons or staff may feel when encountering new technologies.
First, working with new technology, I feel a loss of artistic potential and control. When I was in charge of web page design at work in both the public and private sectors, I invested a great deal of time and energy learning how to make web pages appear the way I wanted them to. The places I worked could not afford expensive, powerful software packages (Dreamweaver, etc.), so I mostly hand-coded the websites I created. This allowed for unlimited tinkering to get the page just right, and when I succeeded, I felt a great sense of success and satisfaction. The variety of page design options is endless and inviting, and with just a few lines of CSS code, one can produce amazing results. For an example, check out the CSS Zen Garden: The Beauty in CSS Design. Here, graphic artists create some fantastic web page designs by changing only the cascading style sheets.
Now, I have to start all over again, learning a new technology, and doing it as part of a team. I am nervous about having other people depending on me while I am learning; I am a bit of a perfectionist, and loathe disappointing others. In addition, the artistic potential of this effort seems diminished in some way. It feels like trying to paint a picture with a paintbrush that has a 3-ft. long handle, and multiple people holding on. The result has the potential to be appealing, but I fear it will lack the detail of a landscape painting that I prefer. And using terms such as “mashups” gives no additional reason for optimism.

On the flip side, new technologies such as blogs, wikis, and the like, have the potential to be accessible to more people. The simple interfaces and tools can allow anyone with access to contribute meaningfully to the great “information commons” that the Internet can become. And by taking it under the “wing” of the library profession, we can raise the standard of quality to a level we find acceptable. But libraries are being squeezed between shrinking budgets, and increasing demand for electronic access to services. Despite our best efforts, there continues to be a growing “digital divide” between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” And as current economic policies and practices continue to widen the gap between rich and poor, it will only make things worse. So what do we do? Where does our professional role end, and advocacy begin?

My thanks to Judy Kemp's blog, An Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge, for this week’s blog idea.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Subtle Challenges for Our Profession

Blog Posting 4

Recently, I was scanning recent postings on The Shifted Librarian’s blog, and one in particular caught my eye. She referred to Karin Dalziel’s Chart of 4 Types of Information Literacy on a blog I’d not heard of, Musings of an LIS Student. For a class assignment, Ms. Dalziel tries to differentiate between four types of literacy:

Information Literacy
Media Literacy
Digital Literacy

She carefully delineates the pros and cons of each form in a table, and comes across as clearly preferring Digital Literacy. While Ms. Dalziel has clearly given this a lot of thought, only Information Literacy has evaluation as part of its primary activity. A brief memory of a previous class springs to mind as an example of the importance of this activity:

In the late 1980’s, as part of my coursework in Early Childhood Education at the U of MN (Minneapolis), I was required to take “Intro to Human Relations,” even though I already had a B.A. in Psychology. One section of the class covered critical viewing of popular media, and the subtle messages it conveys. I remember a slide (not PowerPoint, just a regular photographic film slide) the lecturer showed of a perfume ad. A woman, dressed in an expensive evening gown and wearing makeup, is seated with her body facing to the right of the frame, but her head and shoulders are turned so she is looking behind her to her right. A shadow (apparently male) looms over her shoulder, and the look on the woman’s face is not one of pleasure, but of fear. This ad, we were told, came from a popular beauty/fashion magazine for women!

Since I grew up in a family of four brothers, I had no understanding of the subtle violence in popular media, and was shocked and appalled upon learning of it. (I was already keenly aware of the popular media’s use of women as sex-objects, and men as success-objects.) Now, with the blatant use of profanity and misogynist language popularized by rappers and other “stars,” are we too desensitized to recognize the insidious forms of violence in the media?

As librarians, how can we encourage our patrons to critically evaluate the abundant resources we are oh, so proud, to offer? Some say we are not supposed to judge or rate materials. Free and equal access to information is an ideal we strive to reach in our profession, and I will uphold that standard when I finish library school. Yet some of those same digital and print items have content that tacitly sanctions violence against women, and libraries are staffed overwhelmingly by women. So what do we do? Where does our professional role end, and advocacy begin?

"He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer." -- from Night by Elie Wiesel

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Digitally Present?

In reading my email from this past week, I noted one article about a survey that blogger Meredith Farkas conducted of people in the “blogosphere.” According to her survey, “Library bloggers are more likely to be women, 40 years old or younger, living in a large urban area in the Midwest or Northeast, who possess an MLS but no other advanced degree, and work in a medium or large academic or large public library.” (AL Direct, 9/5/2007). Having grown up in the 60’s & 70’s, I always thought that anything “geeky,” i.e. related to computers and technology, would be dominated by males. Perhaps it is the more expressive nature of the blog as a medium that appeals to women. If anyone is reading my blog, do you have any thoughts on why blogging is so popular with women?
Most of the other demographics did not surprise me very much. Access to the Internet is better and cheaper in the large, urban areas, and the larger libraries, both academic and public, have the funding base to afford the staffing levels that will allow this activity. I was slightly surprised that the 31-40 year age range was the largest. Being new to this aspect of computer technology, I thought that bloggers would come from the next-younger group, the twenty-somethings. In Jenny Levine’s blog, The Shifted Librarian, she created a library-related version of Beloit College’s Mindset List for the class of 2011. In it, she offers “a few broad strokes” for reexamination of library services. Her comment that the newest college students “think in 160-character chunks” is telling, and a wake-up call to all of us who aspire to make knowledge and information freely available. If these young people are as terse in their thinking as in their communications, then when they seek out our services (online or in-person), will they bypass resources that are thoughtful and well reasoned in favor of quick and easy answers? And how thoughtful and well reasoned are their responses to life’s challenges? Finally, how can we, as librarians, stretch and tease-out the deeper parts of these people, the ones we will have to rely upon in our old age?
When I was in high school in the late 1970's, we were all required to read the book 1984 by George Orwell. In it, "Big Brother," the government that watched everyone, was aggressively destroying language by cutting it to the bare minimum. Who needs a government to do this when our gadgets will teach us to do it, all in the name of keeping in touch? In the September 2007 issue of ALA's American Libraries, Joseph Janes writes "Your location doesn't matter as much as your presence." In phone conversations one can be "present" for another, and the recipient can tell because of our tone of voice, our silences, and other non-verbal forms of communication. We can infer the same level of presence in electronic communications, but we cannot be as sure that the friend(s) on the other end are listening as intently as we would like. Is digital "presence" as truly intimate as physical "presence?" Only as much as a postcard is like a hike through the giant redwoods of California.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Reflections on Libraries and Social Networks

I am surprised to find myself out of the technology advocate role, and in the seat of the questioner. Maybe it comes from having spent nearly a year working for a dying local business. Maybe it comes from having just completed my Evaluation of Library Sources and Services class. (Maybe I’m just getting old and cranky like my Hoosier grandfather did at an early age.) Whatever the reason, I’ve rediscovered the feeds I subscribed to via Bloglines, and found a posting on the InfoBlog that has my inner critic rubbing his hands together with glee.
Justin Perkins at Frogloop.com has created an online ROI (return on investment) calculator for social network campaigns:

Wonder if you should spend your time campaigning in social networks?

You can use this tool to calculate an estimate of cost and return on investment for the recruitment and fundraising efforts of your staff in social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace. It works sort of like an online mortga
ge calculator. Just enter the starting assumptions in the yellow boxes below and the tool calculates results automatically.

Playing with the amounts in the yellow boxes, it appears that if you just change the Average Direct Donation per friend, each friend would have to donate at least $439 just to break even! And that would not happen until the fourth year! While that assumes a very low donation rate of 0.10%, it does not appear unrealistic. Social networks seem to grow very quickly, if not exponentially. In a study released in July 2007, comScore detailed how Facebook, when it opened its services to the general public in September 2006, saw the number of users grow from 14 million to 26.6 million by May 2007. Since participants can be anywhere in the world, only a very small fraction of a group of “friends” may actually be local. In addition, one must ask how many of those are in a place to make financial contributions of a substantial size. In an earlier study (comScore, October 2006), also by comScore, the authors note:

Visitors to MySpace.com and Friendster.com generally skew older, with people age 25 and older comprising 68 and 71 percent of their user bases, respectively. Meanwhile, Xanga.com has a younger user profile, with 20 percent of its users in the 12-17 age range, about twice as high as that age segment’s representation within the total Internet audience.

Clearly, if we as librarians are to justify time and effort involving libraries in social networks, we must bring the same critical evaluation skills used in selecting traditional library materials (books, etc.) to bear upon this process. What is the goal of becoming involved with X social network? How will we know we are successful? How can we measure this? (Thank you, Dr. Applegate!) Once we get past the “Wow!” of the next new thing, we must ask “How?” and “Why?”.

Web 2.0 and the important questions

(Originally posted Tuesday, 8/28/2007 on my other, activist blog.)

I found this on AL Direct, dated August 22, 2007:

In this future scenario, you could go mall shopping with a gang of friends during a lunch break, even while you remain miles apart. In reality, you'd all be pinned to your work terminals, but on that screen you would be transported to a digital replica of the shopping center. As you walk by a sale at a virtual jeans store, Web cameras in the real store let you see how crowded it actually is, in case a popular item is selling out. Your avatar, set to your body's measurements, tries on the jeans and spins around to show them to your pals. You might buy the pants online or visit the physical store later. Either way, you'd have had a fun afternoon without leaving your cubicle.

What is so wrong with this world that we need to create a virtual one? Wouldn’t it be better to fix the one we have? While “Web 2.0” may be a useful way to delineate the qualitative changes in the way the Web is being used, scenarios like the one listed above raise red flags for me. Whether it is “Library 2.0” or “Web 2.0,” some underlying assumptions need to be examined. As with every new product or technology, the proponents tout all the things it can do, and all the benefits it will provide. The unspoken assumption is that everyone has access to these advances, and the ability to learn to use them effectively. This is simply not true: the “digital divide” is growing, perhaps even faster than the levels of economic disparity, in this country. Technology without compassion becomes just another tool for creating a gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” O’Reilly’s article suggests a number of criteria to use in evaluating whether or not something is truly “Web 2.0." I suggest that librarians, with their dedication to serving the needs of others, ask of any new advances:

  • What assumptions do the proponents of this technology make about such things as access and ability to pay?
  • Who has the most to gain from this new technology, especially in terms of power and money?
  • Who will lose money and/or power with these changes?

If we are not careful, we will continue to isolate ourselves in our cocoon of technology from the painful truths of Real Life 1.0, such as poverty, abuse, neglect, violence, corruption, and injustice.