1st Annual Holiday Online Secret Santa Extravaganza

I’d like to take a shot at arranging an online librarian Secret Santa. It’s been a rough year for the national library community as a whole and I’d like to end the year with some holiday cheer.

So, here’s the skinny:

  • Sign up between now and 11:59PM Saturday December 19th. (Form embedded below.)
  • You will receive your gift target’s information on December 20th.
  • Gifts should be received around December 25th.
  • $10 gift limit (Go over at your own discretion.)

I’ve set up a Google Documents form to collect information from interested individuals. With the advent of internet shopping, the least amount of information you need to share is an email address. (As a good librarian, I will not share any information with anyone but your gift giver. Plus, I will need to contact you to let you know who you are giving to.)

(Apparently, WordPress doesn’t like iFrames. Here’s the link to the live form while I find a workaround. Sorry about that!)

Let’s make this a rousing end of the year success! Be sure to pass the word on this event! I will be making a Facebook event and tweeting on it as the days go by (I haven’t thought of a clever hashtag yet).

Happy Holidays, whatever that holiday might be!

The Law of Stackable Hamsters

Picture by jpockele/Flickr

On Thanksgiving, my brother was talking about one of his creative writing classes. He’s on the English faculty at a local college and, as a published author, he is tasked with teaching writing to incoming freshman and sophomores. I’ve certainly heard a lot about his students, both the good ones and the not-so-good ones, and some of his classroom experiences. But when he was telling a story and tossed out the term, “The Law of Stackable Hamsters”, I made him stop and explain that one.

When my brother is teaching creative writing, one of the aspects that he covers is the construction of a scene. Within a scene in a story, a reader will suspend disbelief to a certain degree in order for the author to tell their tale; however, there is a limit to the number of coincidences you can create within a scene in the book. Or, as my brother explained in an alternate way of considering the number of coincidences to include, there is a limit to the number of hamsters you can stack. You can stack two hamsters and they will generally stay in place; three hamsters and the underlying structure is very wobbly and possibly won’t hold; and you can’t try four or more hamsters because there is no way to stack that many without it falling over right away. Thus, my brother created the Law of Stackable Hamsters in the field of creative writing.

This explanation (and the accompanying mental images) had me giggling for hours afterward. When he was finished, I told him straight out, “I’m totally going to steal this.” With a giving shrug, he replied, “Go for it.”

So, without further ado, I’d like to propose the Law of Stackable Hamsters for libraries.

The premise is very simple: limit the number of steps that your customer has to take to get from a starting point (such as your homepage, information desk, circulation desk, or reference desk) to get to the information or service they are trying to reach. Consider the number of clicks that it take to get through your website to the content beneath, the number of referrals to other desks for service, and some of the forms and hoops that we make our customers go through for program registration and service requests. Beyond two or three steps, I believe customer’s experience suffers at an exponential rate. They aren’t going to think about whether they got their answer or not (although it will factor in); they are going to be thinking about how much effort it took to get to the conclusion.

For example, I inwardly groan when I hear a patron being told by staff that they have to go to another desk when I know that the person will just be sent right back because they need to do something here first before they can do over there. In one sentence from a staff member, they have just sent a customer on a journey that will end with visits to four desks. I grimace at the thought that customer may up feeling like they are getting the run around for no reason or that we don’t know what we are doing here. Another example: I don’t like the fact that it can take up to SIX clicks to get from my library’s main page to a program registration (it takes three if you know what you are looking for and use the search function). For myself, I can’t remember many websites where I had to click that many times to find what I was looking for without feeling like I was on a web archeological expedition. If I’m feeling a bit put out, what will the patron feel like as they navigate through the pages? For these two examples, it presents a column of stacked hamsters that will simply topple over.

(Yes, I know this isn’t a very new concept here. But I think it is a much more fun way to imagine it.)

For me, it embraces what I feel is a core value of the library: ease of access. As I work towards a more Star Trek information utopia, it is the barriers of access that concern me the most. Whatever we can do to make it easier, we should consider doing and/or working towards. From larger concepts (net neutrality and freedom of inquiry) to smaller ones (better web interfaces and universal staff training), ease of information access should be a priority that we strive for from our vendors, our professional policies and peers, and ourselves.

Please. Think of the hamsters.

Thanksgiving Thoughts ‘09

I am thankful for the journey so far.

It is the culmination of many events, both good and bad, that have brought to where I am today. I thank all of the people, both present and long gone of all intentions, who have shaped me into the person I am today. It has not always been great, it has not always been fun, but it has been an evolving experience.

I am thankful that my life is surrounded by such vibrance.

To be in the included in the lives of such a wide range of exceptional people is a true gift. They are my angels, muses, saints, and heroes. While we may originate from dust and return to it in the end, never forget that it is stardust. We are a greater sum than our mortal parts. Some may call it the soul, others the divine spark, still others the human spirit, but never let such a fantastic essence be secreted away.

I am thankful for all that I have and all that is to come.

H2H

Yesterday, I was on the phone talking to Nancy Dowd at the New Jersey State Library about the text message pilot program that I am involved in at my library system. We were winding down talking about the program when she told me about what the State Library is doing for National Write Your Own Book Month: they looking to collect 50,000 words of wisdom through messages that are 140 characters are less. After encouraging me to contribute to the challenge, we exchanged Thanksgiving wishes and hung up. I sat at my desk in the work room for a long while, just staring at the notes from the call.

Of all the advice and words of wisdom I have been offered in my life, there really wasn’t anything that jumped out at me as something I would like to confer. It felt like I was sorting through dozens of fortune cookies, looking for the one little piece of insight that would make me or someone else go “A ha! I never thought/considered/pondered that before!” But nothing came to me last night, so I just let it go. But today, in the place that yields much insight these days (my car), my eyes welled up with tears as the realization came over me. It is the finest piece of advice I have ever been given, kept very close to my heart, rarely repeated till now. But, like all of the best advice, it should be shared with the world.

To understand, let me tell you a story.

Canning Kraft The man pictured to the right is my great uncle Canning Kraft. He was the younger brother of my grandfather, part of a pair of twins. After his stint in the Army during World War II, he came back to New Jersey like many GIs to find work and start a family. I remember as a very small child visiting him at a John Wanamaker’s department store where he was a salesman in the house wares department. At the many holiday parties and events hosted at his house on Fairview Avenue, he was the embodiment of a social gentleman. A little hunched, he met you with a strong handshake, his jovial yet mashed “Lookin’goodoldfriendhowareyou?”, with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye. He’d be inquiring on subjects about your life at an ADD rate (the family suspected he was an undiagnosed case) while guiding you over to the food or seating or other family members before excusing himself off to top of a drink or say hello to someone. When he did settle down, the time would ebb away as you talked about anything and everything in the world. An excellent conversationalist and a good listener, he would go back and forth with you on any subject brought to the table. He was a role model to me for his thoughtfulness, his compassion, and his hospitality.

But while the picture above is at the prime of his life, the bulk of my memories are from his twilight years. He was diabetic and it had turned bad in his last October of his life. The doctors had amputated one of legs below the knee and were getting him healthy to take the other leg when he decided he was done with hospitals and doctors. He wanted to leave, to die in his own home with his wife and dog, and his family at his side. And so it was. In my mind, I can still see that last visit. I remember climbing the steps up to the painted wooden porch and passing through the front door. There was a hospital bed set up in the dining room, a dominating piece of furniture surrounded by the dark sideboards and medical equipment. Other family members were milling about with intent purpose; some were in the kitchen, making food; other were quietly chatting in the living room; and a few sat at the side of the bed and talked with my uncle. After a few family members finished their talks with him, I took a seat on the side of the bed and began our last visit.

It was a good talk where we told each other how much we meant to one another. It was the kind of talk that people everyday wish they had with their loved ones who pass away suddenly or leave their lives for reasons never known or explained. I held his still strong hand while we chatted; I think it was for my own comfort more than for his. Then, the time came where I had to go, knowing that this was the last time, the final moment, when there could be nothing more said. As I leaned in to give him a hug and say goodbye, he quietly spoke into my ear,

“Go with the moment.”

I nodded, pulling back, and left without speaking. There was no voice for me at that moment as I let the words sink in. I just got into my car and drove, crying so hard I had to stop a couple of times. A couple of days later, I got the call from my folks while I was down at college that he had passed.

Until this post, I had not mentioned what he said in that final parting to more than a handful of people. I’ve meditated on its meaning over the years and how it has been reflected in my life. I have taken it to mean that I should trust my instincts, take a worthwhile risk, and to embrace those changes that pour through our lives. It has lead me to great adventures (like a semester abroad in Australia) and some deep disappointments (a couple of devastating romantic heartbreaks), but it has always made me embrace the choices life has given me.

So, for you, Uncle Canning, I have taken your words of wisdom onto a greater audience.

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For those of you with someone like my uncle in their lives, I encourage you to contribute their words of wisdom to this neat project. From the NJ State Library blog:

How to submit your H2H words of wisdom:

1. Text “H2H” to 51684, hit “space” and type your advice. Standard message charges apply. You’ll receive a message to let you know your submission has been accepted. We will keep you updated about the book but we won’t send more than 1 message per week and you can stop the messages anytime you want by replying “Stop”.

2. Tweet to: @h2hbook

We will include your initials or first name to your quote if you include it. All entries must be submitted no later than November 30.

3. Go online: Follow this link and fill out your words of wisdom online.

Guidelines:

No profanity

No personal references

While we would love to use all quotes that are submitted, we will be editing the final product and reserve the right to reject submissions.

Questions? Nancy Dowd: ndowd@njstatelib.org

And don’t let it stop with you. Share this with your friends and family. Leave them the words that you want them to remember you by and encourage them to do the same. Don’t let it stop with you. Let this be a great sharing of the simple wisdom of ages.

Thoughts on Schools and Libraries

Picture by Atelier Teee/Flickr Since I thought about this observation while getting into my car to go to dinner the other evening, I haven’t been able to shake it out of my system. I’m hoping that this blog entry will be read by individuals who can shed some light on the subject and perhaps nudge me as to whether I am actually onto something. And so, without further ado, here is the observation that came to me.

While both schools and libraries are seen as institutions of education, there is a radical difference between the two. Specifically, schools represent a structured form of academic learning and inquiry based around lesson plans, schedules, and specific practices and theories of education, whereas the library is an unstructured marketplace of intellectual exploration for the self motivated curious individual. It is the institutionalization of the learning process through the public school that makes the unfettered academic freedom of the library so foreign to most people that they become non-users. In other words, I believe the structured learning process of schools tends usurps the ability of people to engage in the independent pursuit of their own erudite curiosity. 

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. As a graduate of the public education system, as far as I can recall in my schooling years, I can remember the existence of structure in my studies. From Pre-K to 12, my academic thoughts and curiosities were managed by a series of very well meaning teachers and instructors who told me the subjects I was going to learn, explore, and consider at different parts of the day. It may not have mattered that I wasn’t much for considering Shakespeare at 8:30 in the morning or math functions right after lunch at 1:45 or tackling a foreign language at the end of the day when I was tired of being at school; there was a schedule and I was beholden to it.

During those years (especially high school), I did as I was expected by my parents and teachers in order to do well on my report cards. But it was not a labor of love; it was a means to an end to get to the looser structure of college with its liberal schedule and hours that better matched my learning habits. Even when I went to the library, it was because I had an assignment or report that needed research and support. (i.e. I was indirectly told to go the library because the requirements of research for the report were necessary to gain a passing grade.)  Throughout the length of my academic career, I never went to the library on my own whims.

To this end, I think this is where the lacuna between schools and libraries exist; people either do not or cannot make the step from a structured learning environment of school to the free form inquiry of the library. When you have spent the new sum total of your formative years being told what you are going to think about and learn, how foreign would it be to given a learning environment that comes without such directions or constructs? Obviously some people can make the transition while others use us for the services that we offer (e.g. free internet, free newspapers), lest we would have been gone many years ago. Nor would I say that everyone is completely brainwashed into thinking only through direct prompting. But, I suggest that for greater numbers the library has less appeal without the instilled structure or guidance that has been carried hand in hand with their prior learning experiences.

One might look at this notion and ask, “Well, where does the Internet fall into this? It’s unstructured and people use it everyday.” I’m really not completely sure at the time of writing this post. I would surmise that the internet is more convenient for (what I would call) “surface curiosities”; that is, basic inquiries such as what today’s weather will be, the local or national news, what the family is up to, and so forth. I think the point of inflexion on the internet exists when there is a deeper understanding sought. Here, you can easily get into the invisible web, a point where the library can step in through databases and subject specific materials on a topic. The gap that exists here is one of perception. It is very easy to think that the web has everything with the ease of search engines; however, it is another thing when it comes to the merit of the results. The “all knowing” reputation of the internet supersedes the possiblity of asking for aid from the library. And as a result, people to not pass through our doors, call us on the phone, or even email us with their inquiry.

I’m not indifferent to the fact that there has to be some organization and structure when you are dealing with that many students at those ages with the variety of learning styles. Public education is a ‘one size fits most’ solution to providing knowledge to the greatest number of students with the least amount of variation in practice. But, if we are as serious as we proclaim to be about the education of our children, there certainly has to be a better way of doing it that balances maintaining an orderly school and allows exploration and inquiry that better matches a child’s natural inclinations.  A fostering of natural curiosity blurs the line between schools and libraries and makes the interchange between them more natural. (The left and right hands of education, if you will.)

To be fair, I only have my own educational experience to draw upon for these observations and I am certainly no expert in the fields of public education. However, I simply cannot shake this notion that my presumptions hold some greater validity. I would be delighted with either a correction or validation, for both would provide me with a more definitive answer.

Such is the price of my curiosity. :D

Pieces of Me

When I left work today, I had two things on my mind. First, I wanted to cook. Second, I wanted to write. Both were slated to be creative endeavors as I had something I wanted to try cooking and I had an idea for something to write for this blog.

As to the cooking, it was something that came to me early in the day. This morning, I had thought about making some pasta and meat sauce; with the meat sauce, I wanted to try browning the ground beef in bacon grease. (Yes, it was a inspiring moment that you might find on some other blog.) Kathy had thought that this might not work, which only spurned me to try it even more. So, after work, I stopped at Wegman’s, grabbed everything (plus some other things I thought might spice it up), and headed home to cook.

What I like about cooking is that it appeals to the mad scientist in me. In the past, this has lead to some memorable disasters and certainly culinary miscues on my part. (The best miscue that Kathy will tell to complete strangers was adding cinnamon to ground beef for hamburgers. It seemed like a good idea at the time…) But since I have enough money to negate any cooking disaster with consoling takeout, it has given me a safety net for trying things I’m not completely sure about. These days, I will consult The Flavor Bible to make sure there are some flavor affinities going on so I know I’m headed in the right direction. And tonight, I was headed in the right direction for some tasty success.

(For the curious, the final product had ground beef browned in bacon grease, organic marinara sauce, chopped bacon, black beans, dark red kidney beans, garlic, onions, chopped grape tomatoes, a dash of cumin, a dash of freeze dried basil, and a couple of turns of a pepper grinder. I served it on angel hair pasta with rosemary Italian bread with salt. I don’t use measurements for ingredients since I function under the “close enough” system.)

After cleaning up the kitchen, I went to office, sat down at the computer, opened up Windows Live Writer, jotted down the couple of thoughts I had on what I wanted to write, and then… nothing. No more words, no more thoughts, just me and the blinking cursor of the DAMNED on the screen. It was in that moment that I thought that one out of two creative projects was good enough for today and that I would just find something else to do.

Such began the winter evening of my discontent: nothing was holding my interest. World of Warcraft, Google Reader, my usual web haunts and message boards; I was thirsty for something to do but not those. I ended up on the TED talk website looking through the topics and speakers. I had watched a couple last week and remembered that there were some talks I had seen listed that I was curious to try out. So I watched one, skipped around to a couple of different ones, and had literally text a friend about how damn bored I was when I found the TED talk I have imbedded below. I watched it and, lo and behold, a marvelous thing happened:

I thought of something to write about.

(If you want to watch it before reading the rest, go for it.)

Before Elizabeth’s talk, I had never thought of the creative process in any sort of substantial terms. For such a fantastic process that produces such interesting results that have certainly changed my own life and people around me, there was no curiosity about the process, how it happens, or why it happens. “It just happens” was a sufficient explanation without further thought or consideration. In the walk I took after her talk, I began to think about the process and how I would describe it to outside observer. How would I quantify and/or qualify my creative process? As the houses went slowly by and my feet strode across the pavement, I finally settled on a way that I think best describes it for me: a haunting. Allow me to elaborate.

There are two ways that ideas come to me. The first is like a poltergeist; a sudden appearance of a thought that rattles around for a moment and then quiets down just as quickly. It is a fleeting disruption to whatever I am thinking or doing at the time. I’m not always sure where it came from, nor whether I even like what it is; all I know is that it’s now there for me to either build on it or discard it. Like any haunting, it can strike anywhere such as in the car, in the shower, laying in bed, or any other situation in which paper and pencil are not immediately handy. And, like poltergeists of traditional telling, these random flashes of inspired thought come and go as they please.

The second way is more like a possession. It is an idea or thought or concept that simply grips me and holds me in its sway, taking over my active thought process. It takes an ‘exorcism’ of output as I must either banish or get this idea down in some form lest it drive me mad with its incessant chatter and visualizations. An undismissable flight of the fantastic, not all of them will be advanced, but they will all be heard. Even when jotted down in my notes or potential projects list, they linger on, watching and waiting for me to act. This description is more sinister than it actually is, but I really can’t think of a better way to express how it feels to get an idea that simply won’t shut up or go dissipate.

(To me, the truly bothersome thing about my creative process is that I really don’t take anything off the table when it comes to my imagination. This means that some very dark and disturbing things can show up at times. These are the kind of  things that keep me awake at night and make my palms sweat in the middle of a perfectly normal day. They are wholly depressing, ideas of a true profane and vulgar nature that frighten me to ponder what people would think of me if they ever heard them. I know we all have our dark side, but I’ve never liked this end of the creative abyss.)

What really got to me in Elizabeth’s talk was the part about the product of such creative minds and how it affects them. For all of the projects that I handle in the course of the day, it is the ones in which I am personally invested (like this blog) that are the most mentally taxing. While not each post is the finest of my efforts in prose, there is a bit of me that goes off with the pressing of the “Publish” button. For those entries where I put myself out there to the greater library field (like this recent “Why I Support Library 101” post), there is always a moment riddled with unnerving doubt that assails my senses. To get this post published (or whatever I’m trying to reveal beyond myself), I pay the psychic toll it is demanding: a bigger piece of myself. I don’t know whether it is a fear of failure or disappointment or the creative process trying to protect one of its own from harsh realities of the outside opinion world, but it is most certainly unpleasant. There is validation in the compliments of my peers for some of the more thoughtful posts I have made on various subjects, but the price paid is not forgotten.

In the end, however, I think I have gotten a better understanding of the entire creative process from start to finish. I can feel how creativity flows within me, how it expresses itself, and how it manifests in the final product. And, more importantly, why it is ok to let a bit of myself go out with it. I think it would be a shame to leave this world not having given everything of yourself away, for you truly cannot take it with you. With each act of creativity, let there be an act of courage to share it. And let me leave you with a thought for your own approach to the creative process:

Creativity is the original open source software.

It should be shared and shared alike.

Rainy Friday Musing

Image by Chaval Brasil/Flickr

I had texted it, used it as a reply on Facebook, tweeted it, so I figured I might as well blog it.

Be like the stars: shine brightly, burn passionately, and let your light radiate for a long time after you are gone.

I really need to start looking at the projects I have rolling around in my head and start working on some of them.

=D