Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Exercise your brain?

A recent discussion on the LITA listserv is my food for thought this week. It began by citing an op-ed column from the NY Times (tongue-in-cheek, I suspect):

“Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants – silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.”

The first respondent indicated that this “outsourcing” of information was seen “as being the antithesis of thinking, therefore it was less knowledge, not more.” Another talked about how the brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and deplored the technology-induced entropy of the brain. My first reaction to these discussions was to ask why we must create and control so much information that we need techno-crutches to survive? What purpose do they serve? If this “stuff” will help us live longer, make more money, and be more comfortable, then how much information is enough? How much is too much? But even these questions, for me, only scratch the surface of this issue. I prefer to take a step back and look at the context that encourages us to leave it all to technology.

“How may I serve you?”

Here in the US, the capitol of capitalism, we are asked this question, in all its myriad forms, dozens of times a day, both overtly and subtly. I’ve worked as a business customer service representative for a major telecommunications company, and was encouraged to greet each incoming call with, “How may I provide you with excellent service today?” Our kitchens abound with gadgets and tools just waiting at our beck and call to help us fix quick meals. Cable television waits in most homes to entertain, as does the Internet on our computers. GPS devices in our cars help us find our way to wherever we want to go. At the drive-thru or the restaurant we are asked, “May I take your order?” And at the bank, “How may I help you?” The roll of the librarian is a service-oriented role, though the level of knowledge required to be most effective does allow us to require a “masters” degree. Nonetheless, most of us in this technological society have a role to play serving one or groups, and being served or assisted by others, on and off the job.

The larger number of “servants” you can call upon, can direct and control, the more prosperity and power you are perceived to have. The more we can control in our lives, the safer (and happier?) we can be. As a recent beneficiary of arthroscopic knee surgery, I am exceedingly grateful for the ability to walk, bike, swim and sleep without pain anymore. Medical and related technologies have improved my quality of life above what my ancestors even dreamed of. Yet, why do we feel the need to have impersonal help with every aspect of our lives? What are we avoiding this way?

On a more personal note, I find it far too easy to "outsource" thinking. When I sit down to work at the computer, whatever answers I need are only a few keystrokes and/or mouse clicks away. As a graduate student, I am expected to have read and absorbed knowledge, and have it waiting and ready for class. But when I get to class, too often my mind is a blank, assuming that something outside me will provide contextual clues to help me know what to say or do next. And while I grew up with very little technology (beyond paper and pencil), I shudder to think how irrelevant traditional education must seem to students who have been served by technology all their lives. (If you haven't seen the YouTube video created by Michael Wesch and students at Kansas State University, take time now to see it.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Wildfires and Digital Storytelling

As I tried to read the chapter on "Digital Storytelling, Libraries and Community" from the book Libraries 2.0 and Beyond (Courtney, 2007), my mind persisted on drifting to a wonderful example of digital storytelling I assisted with. While working as a Technology Paraprofessional at Merrill Middle School in Denver, CO, part of my job was to assist in the 8th grade "Advanced Technology" class, where students learned to take digital photos and movies, and turn them into music videos using Apple's iMovie. During my second year there, wildfires had swept through the mountain foothills less than an hour from Denver, leaving the beautiful landscape barren and desolate. One science teacher found out that there was grant money available to pay for students to come help re-seed portions devastated by the fire, and she arranged to take nearly the entire 8th grade on this trip. Our tech students brought along digital video and still cameras to record the event. Then they brought their recordings back to school, and in teams of two, created music videos. Then the class voted on the best video, which was then shown to the science teacher and her classes. The fun, hard work, and ultimate transformation of the hillsides on which the students worked were well-documented by these efforts, and I have seldom been prouder of where I've worked. Unfortunately, because of copyright restrictions, we could not allow copies to leave the school, for the students had used popular music from their own collections.
In addition to the re-seeding project, our tech students spent the year taking pictures and video of sporting events, assemblies, classrooms, clubs, staff, employees, and all other aspects of the school. They worked in teams of 3-4 to organize it all into a year-end music video. I watched them putting it together and, not being part of the MTV-watching crowd, was impressed by their work but indifferent to its value. But when the video was played at a year-end assembly for the 8th graders, I saw students and teachers alike with tears in their eyes. It seemed to draw everyone present into a sense of community, of a realization that they were ending a shared journey. When the 12-minute video ended, everyone applauded heartily, and we heard over and over again afterward from students, teachers and staff how much they appreciated it. Even now, almost four-and-a-half years later, just thinking about it moves me deeply.
As the technology for making such presentation has dropped in price and become easier to use, it offers us an opportunity to each tell stories that are meaningful to us. But to what end? Radio and television were once heralded as tools that would benefit all humankind. While they do occasionally inform and educate, these media spend far more time and effort in making money than making the world a better place to live. The Internet has followed suit, though recent changes in the ways people publish are helping put some power back into the hands of individuals. How will we use this power, these tools? To empower, or merely entertain? To help the needy, or hype nonsense? To speak truth to power, or sell tired platitudes? To foster community, or fight change? Our answers and actions matter, more than we may ever know ...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Moments like this ...

I was reading a classmate's blog when something she said caught my eye. Sue (sueparblog) is talking with a friend about finding joy in work:
Then she asked me the question that always plucks at my heart: “Don’t you want to find some way to use your PhD in Russian in your library job?” Ugh. I wrestle with this question constantly. I feel deep pangs of betrayal, even, about it. Why did I spend decades learning Russian and learning about Russian history, culture, etc., if I am not going to use it now to earn a living? I love Russian. I’m good at it. It’s a shame to have acquired fluency in a highly-inflected language and not use it in some external way.

I was reminded of an incident I observed as part of an assignment for my Reference class this past summer, which I used for a comment on Sue's blog, and reproduce here for my classmates to read:
Shortly after an hourly rotation of staff, three people approached the desk. It became apparent that they were three generations of females from the same family – elderly mother, grown daughter, and flame-red-haired granddaughter. The “middle” woman asked the male-librarian at the desk for help in finding English books in Russian. As the librarian was giving her his full attention, she explained that what she meant was books to help someone learn English, written in Russian, as well as easy-to-read books for adults learning English. The older woman wore a headscarf, and dressed simply in ways that reminded the author of the way people dressed in the USSR in January of 1984. To the surprise, delight and relief of all three patrons, the librarian responded by greeting and conversing with the Russian woman in her native language! This had the immediate effect of dissipating the “library anxiety” clearly present in the faces of the patrons. With a warm smile, the librarian rose from his seat, asked one additional clarifying question, and led the cheerful group away in search of resources. Had those same patrons approached a “para-librarian” who had only a high school diploma and fewer life-experiences to draw upon, the reference transaction probably would not have ended on such a high note.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Technology, Money and Time

In 1990, when my wife and I moved to a new city so she could attend graduate school, we learned that if we wanted to buy a computer that would “keep pace” with the changing world of technology, we would have to spend $1,700 – $2,000, and after a couple of years it still needed additional memory. Last December when our computer crashed beyond repair, that is the same price range we had to search in to find a computer that would meet our needs. This parallels my experience with Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, with the cost being time rather than dollars. After spending four days in bed with a fever and a cold a little over a week ago, I am still playing catch-up in all three of my classes. While technology can be very inviting, and all the features of “Web 2.0” are easier to use in many ways than their predecessors, my workload has snowballed, leaving me feeling like Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie as he sprints to keep ahead of a giant ball that is about to flatten him. As I read my classmate Judy’s blog, her comment that she “certainly didn’t get as much done as [she] would have liked,” inspired this blog and the similarities noted herein. I enjoy the process of putting together a project, whether it be a website, a video, a slide presentation, or whatever. I want what I am working on to be something I am proud to show others. And the only way to do that is to devote the necessary time to it, a commodity that is clearly in short supply right now. I strive to utilize the time-management skills I learned in the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” workshop I attended years ago. But when I lose substantial time to illness, or other everyday annoyances that technology cannot fix, I have to switch back to off-the-cuff solutions to meet goals and deadlines. And today’s entry was no exception.
Until next time!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Brief detour into geekishness

As I work through my readings and other coursework enroute to my MLS degree, I have heard various authors and bloggers lament the lack of what I would refer to as serendipity in the search process. In the days of the card catalog, a student doing research would determine the general location of books on the topic, and then head to that section of the stacks and search, not only for the book(s) they found, but also for any nearby that could meet the need. The serendipitous nature of the search becomes apparent when the student, unable to find enough resources to satisfy their needs, begins to browse, looking at titles and subjects in the same general area. Books are repeatedly pulled out, flipped through, and then (hopefully) re-shelved, while the searcher looks for materials and information to meet their needs. Our fictitious student may stumble upon a related topic that interests them even more, and has adequate resources to help the student succeed at the given assignment.

Jump forward in time to today, and into the age where students’ first choice for research is the Web. Most library catalog systems lag far behind the tools available on Amazon and Google, where browsers can look at the table of contents and portions of the book online. Tech-savvy librarian writers for ALA and its alphabet-soup mix of sub-groups seem to be calling for libraries to make a jump to an ILS that keeps up with advances young people take for granted. But technology changes so fast that for libraries to catch up is like trying to jump on a moving train while carrying two full-size suitcases without wheels!

Instead, why don’t we try to jump ahead? Or, at least jump to the cutting edge. But which edge? Whatever we jump to, it has to be seamlessly capable of click-and-browse in any direction, and at any level of depth. One new product on the market offers an interface that comes closest to capturing the capability to physically browse while being on the cutting edge: Apple’s newest iPod, the iTouch, and its cousin, the iPhone. Watching the online tour of the iTouch in particular, I was struck by the “album view” capability built into iTunes, the software that plays music and other media. Here is a picture:

Here is one possible place where libraries can jump in, and become both relevant and valuable to the next generation of users. Currently, when someone carrying an iTouch walks into a Starbucks coffee shop, it automatically accesses an electronic “music store,” where patrons can buy the songs they hear over the store’s sound system. Why not offer similar wifi network in libraries? Patrons carrying such a device can walk in, and immediately have the electronic catalog available to them, in the same feature-rich format. Click on a button or icon, and begin a metasearch on a given topic. From the list of items found, patrons can browse the table of contents, or pages within the item by “flipping” through in album-view. If the items listed do not meet the need, the patron can click on hyperlinked terms from controlled vocabulary, and easily tap into even more resources!

I could go on for enough pages for a conference presentation Instead, I challenge any open-minded library student or professional to view one or both of these tours (iTouch or iPhone); as you watch, mentally note how easily many of these features could be transformed into all the disparate, valuable tools and services we offer – metasearching, links to OCLC and ILL, searching subscription databases and the web simultaneously, etc. All of this available in the humble context of flipping through the pages of an electronic, book-like device that patrons already own!
Latté, anyone? ;-)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Librarianship’s dance with technology.

Since I began working on my MLS degree, I have been learning about and observing the “dance” between librarians and technology. I’ve learned how library professionals were among the earliest groups to grasp the implications of the power of the computer to make their work easier and more efficient. Those early pioneers of technology diligently strove to learn the “steps” for each new dance and partner, from character-based systems up to today’s graphic user interfaces (GUI). Now, with the evolution of the web from a venue for presentation of skilled craftspersons, to a platform for creative expression and self-publication, librarians have a wealth of new dances and partners to choose from. The necessity of “dancing” regularly with one’s partner(s) at work – ILS, WorldCat, and others from the alphabet soup of familiar “faces” – need not dampen the fun and excitement of spending every spare moment learning how to “dance” the “FaceBook”. As I read magazines, blogs and books praising every new technology, it seems that some librarians (often, but not exclusively younger) flit, whirl and leap from one partner to another, building an enormous repertoire of steps and experiences that would leave a less-savvy person exhausted and dizzy. If one changes partners quickly and frequently enough, it appears as though it would be easy to ignore the shortcomings – smashed toes, bruised shins, etc. – of each dance and partner.

But in the excitement of all that’s new, it is very important to stop and take the time to find out if there are undesirable aspects to these new technologies that are subtle, and unobtrusive. Dancers (in my experience, mostly women) have had to put up with, or walk away from, inappropriate touch and behavior from their dance partners (in my experience, mostly men). When a group of individuals join a dance, it can influence the quality and mood of the entire activity. Does welcoming such a large group of new dance partners to the library “dance party” enrich the experience for our patrons and us, or detract from it? I do not intend to promote any form of conspiracy theory here, but companies exist that do “data mining,” the gathering of large amounts of information about as many people as possible. If “knowledge is power,” as the saying goes, what personal power are we giving away when we make ourselves so intimately known to all of these different forms of technology? In another situation, would we choose to make available to any number of strangers the same information/power about ourselves? Knowing the answers to these questions is critical, and will help us to determine whether the excitement of dancing with a new partner is worth the risk.