Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

A couple of days ago, there was another attempt to move the minute hand of the Library Doomsday Clocktm towards midnight. I really couldn’t say that I was outraged since it was a basic recycling of “who needs a library when you have the internet lol” argument. What pushed superficial response aside was a contempt at the effort; not that someone would dare utter the words, but more of a “Really? Is that the best you can do?” I mean, come on! Simply supporting the thesis of end of libraries with “isn’t it obvious?” is either lazy trolling or just link bait. Initially, I just made a series of replies on Twitter of which Jacob Berg embedded the highlight reel in his post on the topic. But really, folks, these kinds of posts don’t merit our limited time, effort, or sanity.

Hell, if you want an idea of how old and tired this “heresy” is, it’s old enough to drive, vote, and most likely not get carded at bars. From the journal The Electronic Library back in 1983, this “end of libraries” article has the most wonderful abstract:

In terms of size, arrangement and catalogues, the conventional library has reached an organisational and financial impasse. Coincidentally there has emerged a pre-emptive new technology for the storage, handling and transmission of information, potentially better suited to the convenience of users. Libraries may disappear like the dinosaurs; or they may, by returning to first principles, be able to adapt and successfully survive.

You hear that? Even by 1983 standards, we were in danger of extinction. The Commodore 64 was going to put libraries out to pasture. Now I have word document files that are bigger than the entire memory of those old machines.

“Death by internet” gets some play in this New York Times article from 2002:

And contrary to predictions about the death of libraries in the Internet age, in the last decade local libraries have grown more essential than ever to social life in the county. They have become community centers, the beating heart of Westchester’s towns and villages and cities.

There are probably a ton more examples of this kind of artistic license in which the library is either saved or damned by the internet, but you get my point. It’s overplayed and makes a nice headline, but it really lacks that pesky thing known as evidence.

For myself, my reasons for writing this post are not to show how weak that argument is, but that librarians are made of tougher stuff. In peering through the history of the profession, the profession has been on the forefront of important societal issues such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay rights. The ALA had called for women’s right to vote, the end of racial segregation, and the recognition of homosexuality as a acceptable sexual orientation long before there was popular support. These pursuits are part and parcel to our belief in intellectual freedom and equality of information access. And, even in this grand age of the internet, the challenges of fulfilling these ideals remain.

In my perspective, what has changed is the battleground. Copyright, net neutrality, and intellectual property are the next major societal conflicts which will require different tactics and solutions in order to resolve. For certain these are hard issues, ones that will require great minds and greater efforts to change. But so was a woman’s right to vote. As was ending segregation and enacting civil rights. And supporting gay rights from the early days to present victories.

Librarians were on the right side of those issues and we continue to be on the right side when it comes to the present challenges. We can and will overcome. We are heirs to dedicated women and men who changed the world. Never forget our legacy. And most importantly, never let anyone take it away from you.

Our future depends on it.

20/20 on Libraries in 2020

Recently, I was at a job interview in which the final question from the interviewers was something like this :

“Where do you see libraries in the year 2020?”

At that moment, I gave an answer as to where I thought it would be on the basis of what I knew about the demographics of the area, the funding levels, community support, and the current trends in the public library world. It was a damn good answer (if I might be so self-assured), but in the time since the interview the question itself has been turning over and over in my head.

The more I think about it, the more I really don’t like it.

Granted, the question is a bit of a softball. No one is going to hold me to my answer and it is asked to get a better idea of my thought process as it pertains to the future. But the question feels deceptive, not on the part of the interviewer, but for the multitudes of potential answers. While I gave the one that counted then, the factors and permutations have crept in upon further thought.

Seven years is now a dinosaur-like era in a field that has ties to technology. Back in 2006, there was no Tumblr, Google Street View, Instagram, Dropbox, iPhones, or Kindles. Can we even fathom what kind of technology will exist in seven more years? I’m sure there are people within the field who would clamor to answer that question, but I’d have severe reservations about their response.

For myself, there’s a certain irony at work here. One of my early posts on LISNews that caught people’s attention was about the “Next Big Thing”. And now here I am with a half decade worth of observations and information and I’m reluctant to hazard a guess more than three years out. I have mixed feelings when I read stories and blog posts about the future of libraries, arriving as a skeptic and generally leaving unmoved.

I’d like to believe I’m on the leading edge for these kinds of developments in the field, but I have to wonder at what that really means. Is the information pointing me the right way? Is this what libraries should be doing? Are my peers that far behind? The more I hear, the more skeptical I become.

The only thing I believe about 2020 is that there will be libraries. After all, the solutions that libraries provide to their communities will not be cured in seven years. But what they will look like? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Programming Unconference Northeast 2013 Recap

I have to start this post with an admission: for every unconference I attend, it lowers my patience for most organized conferences. Whether it is a “panel” that is actually a vendor sales pitch or presenters who magically turn the interesting into the mundane, I just don’t have the tolerance anymore. I would not go so far as to declare it to be a complete waste of time, but it is certainly squandering my time. I’m not shy about getting up and leaving, and I can say that I’ve voted with my feet enough times to declare expertise in the subject.

In doing so, I’ve found more useful outlets in meeting and talking with my peers, the conference phenomena commonly known as “hallway conversations”. Chatting, socializing, and otherwise engaged conversations are how I learn best and so I seek out those kinds of settings to create up my own learning experience. This is probably why I gravitate towards unconferences, especially in helping to organize them. I leave wanting to do another with the conversations still fresh and the effort to get to that point pushed aside. I come from a long line of very social people, so this is now just a family tradition.

For me, the unconference was a good reminder that the community and the library are not worlds apart like they seem at times. Community groups, whether they are businesses, non-profits, social clubs or whatnot, are readily approachable by the library. It’s a matter of showing how their interests align with the library interests and providing space for that relationship to grow. The library walls, which can feel so confining at times, can be breached by the telephone and email in order to reach out. While making initial contact face-to-face has merit, those in short staffed situations can still make the first move.

Also within that first move of outreach is one to the community at large in trying to ascertain their interests and needs. It doesn’t take much effort with social media pathways and simply asking people who come to the library what they want. It is a matter of doing it.

The most interesting breakout group conversation to me revolved around the makerspace movement. I’m pivoting towards the belief that there has always been a makerspace sort of entity to the library (most notably in childrens’ storytime crafts). What we are seeing now is the next logical step in scaling the production upwards with 3D printers, digital media labs, and other technology. But, even without those items, the capability for craftsmanship is limited only by your creativity. Simply having the tools and materials to allow people to make things such as jewelry or art can be a rewarding programming experience. It’s about taking the lessons of a thrifty hobbyist to see what can be done with recycled materials, odds and ends from a junk drawer, or other seemingly unrelated items. Don’t let the term ‘makerspace’ fool you into thinking that you need some fancy technology in order to have one; opt for the original version that uses hands, tools, and materials. People want to create with their hands these days as they always have since the tactile experience is still highly desired.

For myself, the best reward was watching and hearing how people got involved in the many different conversations. There was one moment where someone’s face lit up at a realization (the suggestion of someone else) and began to dash down notes as fast as their pen would let them. That, to me, was a moment that will stick with me for a very long time and makes me smile just thinking about it. That really made my day and all the effort completely worth it.

As I finish up this post, I want to thank Erin Shea for agreeing to help me “unorganize” this. (We came up with that term; licensing fees for using it are still quite reasonable.) She did the grunt work that comes with setting up the website and arranging the venue (the always beautiful Darien Public Library) and the million other things that I as the remote person could not handle. She was a thrill to work with and I look forward to collaborating with her again in the future. I’d also like to thank Lisa Carlucci Thomas for doing our keynote; she is a wonderful and thoughtful speaker who really got the day going. My special thanks to Pat Sheary and the rest of the Darien staff for their help at the unconference on that day.

Banned Books Bollocks 2013

It’s that time of year again and this will be my fifth (fifth! My God!) post on Banned Books Week. While I have used another curse word in the title in previous editions, I thought I might switch it up to one of my favorite English (as in UK, not as language) curse words. My thoughts on the week have evolved as I’ve learned more about the week, how it is treated, and the circumstances around it. Eventually, I’ll tell you the whole story behind some of these thoughts, but that’s for another year day.

In seeing the pictures shared on social media of various banned book displays, I keep feeling like there is an element missing from those exhibits. There is lots of emphasis on the fact that the books have been challenged or banned and how subversive, notorious, or socially unacceptable they are, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold approach to enticing people to consider reading them. But I haven’t seen is an explanations provided as to why those books have been challenged or banned. Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t one of the main reasons for the week is to talk about the controversy surrounding the content? It’s like asking about the contents of healthy meal and being told, “just eat it, it’s good for you”. Here, read this, someone else didn’t like it enough to try to get it removed somewhere for… reasons.

The only thing I’ve seen that has worked to address the underlying reasons has been Kelly Jensen’s excellent post on Bookriot. She gives a brief explanation as well as links to primary sources for some of the latest book challenges. These abstracts are short enough that I can see someone printing them out and adding them as a insert into the books on their display. The only thing I feel is missing is a closing argument as to why the person should read it anyway. “Here’s a book, here’s why people have challenged it, and here’s why you should read it.” And not one of those “make up your own mind” positions, but something more akin to reader’s advisory about the plot, characters, and the kind of story it tells. This is the kind of follow through that I believe is necessary to show the literary and artistic merits that are so commonly called upon as a defense of the work. Simply hanging a bunch of signs to denote their challenged or banned status is all style with no substance.

Beyond that, I think an important underlying principle that gets lost in the push for people to read these books is the freedom to discuss the ideas they represent. If the purpose of the event is the preservation of differing and possibly unpopular perspectives, then where is the call for dialogue? I can hear my cynical heart mocking me on this point, snickering while it says, “Oh yes, civil discourse on the internet. Good luck with that.” I concede that fact that there is a unhealthy amount of online discussions that split in the factions of “I’m right” versus “You’re an asshole”; and those that don’t start that way can very easily end up marching slowly towards Godwin territory.

Even more troubling to me is seeing some of my librarian peers who proclaim their love of intellectual freedom but react poorly when actually faced with differing viewpoints. It is not a trait unique to the library world, but it is one of believing in the freedom of expression so long as it is words of agreement. I’m not sure how people so eloquently manage such cognitive dissonance, but it’s pretty breathtaking to see in action. I’ll concede that the human mind is capable of many kinds of contradictions, but bragging how open minded you are while marginalizing those who don’t agree with you is still pretty damn amazing. To wit, it reminds of that famous quote from the television journalist Edward R. Murrow.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

Even so, there should be a call for debate on the issues that get brought up related to the work. The issues that they face, the decisions the characters make, and the implications of their actions are all worthy of examination. Furthermore, when it comes to children’s, juvenile, and young adult literature, the content versus the relative maturity of the audience is also an important conversation to have. The middle ground is overshadowed by the reactions of the extremes, leaving very little room for compromise or dialogue. I know these aren’t new to anyone, but they seem to be discarded easily once the lines have been drawn.

For my part, I helped put together a national campaign to encourage people (librarians, library staff, the public, anyone) to report book challenges or removals to the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the ALA about two years ago. It’s still there, it’s still important, and I still hold out hope that people take a moment to be courageous and speak up, even if it is anonymously. Jessamyn West has a nice roundup as to what different groups are doing for Banned Books Week so take a moment to check it out.

Previous Banned Book Week posts: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

Oyster, The Netflix of Books

The latest buzz from the publishing world has been the release of an app called Oyster (aka the “Netflix of Books”). At $10 a month, this subscription service gets you (at the time of this post) access to about 100,000 titles. These titles are all from the only publisher on board right now, HarperCollins. There is no limit on the number of books that a person can view in a month. It’s more expensive than Amazon Prime but has better borrowing terms (Kindle Library allows for only 1 book per month). It’s only available for the iOS right now, but I’m sure they’ll be rolling out other platforms in the near future.

To a certain extent, the app was inevitable; if people can rent movies, then why not books? It was a matter of getting the content providers (namely, publishers) on board with the idea. A few years ago, this notion would have been unthinkable and seen as an impediment to the development of the eBook market. The push was to buy the books, not to borrow (or even rent) them. So what has changed?

I believe the factor that has changed is the value of user data; specifically, the collection of data related to reading habits. Amazon doesn’t hide the fact that it tracks the reader from how much of a book or article is read to how long people read to what parts of a book slow people down. But their numbers are proprietary, their giant industry trump card, and the fuel that is helping them make decisions about their own foray in the publishing world. This is the industry intelligence that the publishers who are not Amazon are lagging behind on.

In the past, there have been signals from the publishing world that they would look more favorably upon libraries if we allowed them to collect the same information about readers from eBook borrowers. They have been resoundingly turned down for a good number of reasons, the first and foremost being that of patron privacy. Amazon skirts this principle by having the transaction go through their website and making the person subject to their terms and conditions. The Nook is in unstable territory as its fate rests with Barnes & Noble and their storefronts. Apple isn’t as much of an option as their bookstore has gone soft. So, what kind of options are left for them?

I think that Oyster has great potential for the consumer by filling a desired niche, but I think that one of the main compelling reasons for publishers to provide their material is to collect their own data about readers. What can be learned about their audiences represents a gold mine for future business decisions, marketing forecasts, and targeted advertising that will help keep the publishing industry afloat in the coming years. It’s not that the titles aren’t worth trying to sell anymore, it’s that the reader information has become more valuable. The new economy isn’t so much about the product, but about how much you know about the people who use it.

EDIT: I originally wrote that it was cheaper than Amazon Prime. It’s not. I corrected that line. Thanks to Frank for pointing out my simple math error.  

National Badass Library Card Sign-Up Month, Reloaded

Two years ago, I got sidetracked on a blog post and made up something I called “National Badass Library Card Signup Month”. I created a bunch of images instead of writing a blog post that I had in my head since the inspiration for the images came easy and the words for the post were proving to be difficult. Some of the images reflect the memes of the day (Chuck Testa) while some have aged much better (animated library card Nyan Cat). I wanted to do something last year, but I ran out of mental energy. But, as you can probably guess where this post is going, I’m getting back on the saddle.

30 memes, 30 days.

That’s what I’m calling it. I made an image for each day of the month all related in some way to National Library Card Sign-up Month. Each day at noon (US Eastern Standard Time) starting on September 1st, an image will be posted to my Tumblr. They cover a vast array of meme themes from the classics to the contemporary with all manner of pop culture thrown between. It’s been fun bringing my love of libraries together with my love of memes.

Special thanks to my brother Pete for helping me refine jokes and pick memes. When the Woodworth brothers get together on something, it’s always a great time. Pete is a writer as well so be sure to check out his published works.

Don’t miss this!

The Eternal Clouds of the Anxious Mind

I have anxiety.

It may seem strange to some, but I labored over the wording of that first sentence. Other phrases like “live with”, “suffer from”, and “have been diagnosed with” didn’t seem to quite capture the nuance I was seeking. It’s not an unwanted roommate on equal footing with the rest of my mind and all I have to do is find a way to evict it. While there are times when I suffer from the symptoms that relate to anxiety, I don’t feel it warrants a term that is more aptly used to describe people in pain, torture, or other greater forms of physical or psychological duress. The diagnosis angle seems too impersonal and clinical for my preferences in approaching this topic as a blog post. While I won’t deny other people the right to use these terms for their own anxiety, I’m not a fan.

In combating the symptoms, I’ve been taking a low dose of anti-anxiety medication for the last few months. Prior to that, I had not been a big fan of the SSRI drug family. My first experience with these kinds of drugs was not the product of anxiety or depression, but as a migraine preventative. Where previous migraine bouts were limited to a couple of headaches over a couple of months then years apart, the migraines I experienced in my late 20’s decided to go full time. I was getting them every day or every other day which, combined with a visual aura followed by extreme light and noise sensitivity, puts a giant crimp on daily life. The SSRI I took then stopped them cold within a day and brought a scary health episode to a close. The downside while I was taking them was a lack of moods and insomnia, a combination that lead to lying awake in bed to think about why I didn’t have much emotional range. These aren’t exactly the best thoughts for lulling yourself to sleep each night. In later years, I took another drug from the SSRI group on a short term basis to deal with depression associated with my divorce. I had to switch medications because of the side effects which included those really bad thoughts they warn you about. While I would prefer not to be on medication, I can’t argue with the positive results with another drug from the same group this time. 

The mental health history of my family tree reads like the lineage of European nobility, for it is long and illustrious and apparently a tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next. I have three family members with paranoid schizophrenia diagnoses (a great uncle and two second cousins once removed). Beyond that, I’d have to take off my shoes to count the number of family members who have dealt with anxiety, depression, addiction, OCD, and other mental conditions over the course of their lives. Needless to say, family reunions are never dull.

There are times when I wonder how much (if at all) these mental illnesses influence my own mind. Do I have those occasional disturbing, haunting thoughts because I have an overactive imagination or it is the product of a dissociative condition? The realistic answer is former but the anxious mind doesn’t completely agree which is enough to put the splinter of doubt at the periphery. It shouldn’t be that way since I had an MRI of my brain done a couple years back when I was experiencing visual distortions every now and again. My neurologist went over the results and told me that my brain was structurally normal which also rules out other conditions. (Me, after finding out the results: “Good, I can now tell me I have a normal brain.” Neurologist, without missing a beat: “The structure is normal. This doesn’t cover function.”) 

I’ve wanted to write about anxiety for awhile because talking about it has always been helpful to me. The reality of acknowledgment always edges out any horrible possibilities that my mind can conjure while some obstacles just evaporate or become clearer by simply articulating them. The mental isolation, that all too often feeling that I am the only one in the world who can understand what it is like, melts away as others open up about their experiences. Sunshine, as they say, is the ultimate disinfectant and it has held true for me when it comes to anxiety. It’s not a silver bullet but it curtails the influence that anxiety can exert over me.

During his lifetime, Winston Chruchill referred to bouts of his depression as visits from his “black dog”. I wouldn’t call my anxiety that (mainly because I like dogs), but I can appreciate the frame of reference: something that comes and goes without much indication as to duration or frequency. Since my massive panic attack back in February, I’ve been on the march back towards the (relatively) normal life that I had before that time period. I’m much better than I was and continue to improve as time slowly marches that event further into my past and, yes, I still have a ways to go.

When and how it will make itself known in the future, I can’t possibly guess. But I will try to stick to that little phrase I picked up during my semester abroad in Australia so many years ago:

“No worries.”