The Disconnect

Big tree limb down on the property Right as I was finishing dinner on Wednesday night, the power went out. The chili was basically done, left to sit on the gas stove and allow the flavors to intermingle. I had started to bake some cornbread which, once I remembered after locating the flashlights and candles, was about half baked. The house has a gas fireplace and we had been through this power loss routine before. We sent out text messages (I did a couple of Twitter updates) and made a few calls to let people in the area know what had happened (and reported it to the utility company), and then put them down to save on our charge. Gathering what we needed into the family room, we hunkered down in front of the fireplace and made the best of it.

Kathy had a book and read for most of the evening (and as it would turn out, most of the night). I had a book as well that I could have gotten, but I was in no mood for reading. I wasn’t really in any mood for doing anything, really; I was just listening to the wind outside. Laying on the couch, with the crackle of the fire, eyes looking out the back window area watching the tree sway in the wind. Shortly after the power went out, we had limbs from trees around the Where the trees were hitting the front  of the house house breaking off under the weight of the snow and hitting the roof. You wouldn’t hear the crack, just the dull thud as it hit the roof and rolled off. A couple of these whole limbs, perfectly healthy limbs (not a good sign), snapped off at the trunk of the tree. Most rolled off the roof and into the shrubs, squashing them under the weight of branch and snow. I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t worried that one of these branches would fall in such a way that it would smash a window or take out the power lines, but I tried not to let it cross my mind.

Early in the evening, I went out to shovel a little bit. I wanted to do something and that was the only thing that I could really do. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do much or get very far, but I was not ready to simply lay there while this was going on. The driveway of the house is not under and trees, so I was going to stay out in the open and not risk getting hurt or killed by a falling branch or tree. I told Kathy I would knock on the window at regular intervals so that she wouldn’t worry; if it went too long without a knock, she should come check up on me. The eaves on the house are rather wide, so I had a place to duck under to avoid any potential falling debris. I got wrapped out and headed outside to shovel the back walk and anything else I had the strength and energy to do.

Once outside, it was bright in only the way that a winter landscape can be. The dark trees against the cloudy sky made everything stand out as I shoveled my back to the driveway. It was apparent very early on that this was going to be a short trip outside if I wanted to continue to shovel; the heavy wet snow was enough to make any snow removal arduous. I didn’t want to take out the snowblower since there is a lot of driveway under trees and I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. So, in standing under the eaves of the garage, shoveling every now and again, I would listen for the wind to kick up. You could hear it coming through the trees from far away, so I’d stop, watch, and listen.

Big downed limb on the property Near and far, you could hear the sounds of branches snapping, their popping and crunching coming through the winter air. Some were so close I’d peer through the darkness to see if I locate the source; others were like distant gunshots, their noise taken away by the wind. I did hear one crash close enough to put it a house or two away, but my vantage was blocked. I did go around the edge of the house to check out the limbs that had fallen, to note their location, and to see if there was any visible damage to the house itself. During this period in time, I watched someone try to make their way through a side street, their tires spinning in the sleet and snow mixture that had formed on the road. I don’t know what would possess anyone to leave their home, but it must have been enough to brave the storm.

Afterwards, I came back into the house, changed into pajamas, and took the couch that I would be sleeping in that night (pictured below). There, laying on the couch, listening once again to the fire next to me and the storm above me, my situation dawned upon me.

My bed for our night without powerI had not been so utterly disconnected in a long while. No computer, no text (saving phone charge, just in case), no games, no television, no technology whatsoever. I had no idea what time it was; I couldn’t even remember the date. As I lay there, my mind was still churning but without the usual external stimuli. It was like a party where the noise level suddenly dies down and all but one person shuts up so their voice carries throughout the room. In this case, my mind was the only voice left.

And so, as I lay under many layers of blankets, I just let my mind roam.

I can’t really say that I thought of anything deep and profound, but that I didn’t realize how much of my day had some form of technological input. Even when I’m out and about away from the computer screen, I text on a fairly regular basis with a number of different people. It didn’t matter where I was, there was always a level of connectedness that was present. With the power loss and a driveway full of snow, it was gone. It was a disconnect that I hadn’t experienced in years. (As I write about it now, I think it might have been when I was riding around Australia on my own back in college.)

And so it was, staring at the ceiling and watching the flickering of the fireplace light on the ceiling, almost a passenger in my own brain. With the outside idea support structures away, it was left to its own devices. Scenes from my life, work at the library, friends new and old, just wandered in and out as the night stretched on. I have no idea how long this went on; I know Kathy told me I dozed off several times.

As much as I would think to avoid putting a moral or conclusion on this experience, it feels right to say that I need more kind of this time. While it could be at home, the temptations of the household technology make it a harder sell. I should think that, in conjunction with my new year’s resolution to get out of the house and be more social, I should be looking for more opportunities to find places that make such temptations hard if not impossible. I’ve heard of monasteries that rent rooms to people to allow them to come and stay (with devices forbidden), but I’m thinking of some more local nature destinations. Banish the cell phone to the car, go camping or hiking, maybe visit the beach. I’m not completely firm on ideas, but this feels like the right direction.

It’s always interesting to me how the perception of things can change with just a little shift. I guess this was one of those times. And from the looks of it, it was a tiny bit overdue. This past year has put me on the move and perhaps it is time to take another. ;)

(For those interested, here’s the link to all of the snow pictures from the past week.)

Deep Thought Thursday Night

In libraryland, there are a lot of statistics that are measured: door counts, circulation of items, computer uses, reference questions, and so forth and so on. As I was getting ready for the end of the year marketing committee for my library system, I couldn’t help but think about some of the things that cannot be tracked. Specially, I wondered about the number of conversation opportunities that are missed by staff members.

I’ll give an example: I’ve watched people come in for a library card, fill out the paperwork, get the card, and thank the staff member and walk away. The staff member was courteous and pleasant; the patron was not problematic; and the overall process went smoothly. But at no time did the staff member offer the customer a library calendar, inquire about interests so as to link them with current programming, ascertain whether they have children within the age ranges of our programs, or otherwise engage in small talk that makes the library sound more welcoming and familial.

I know that all staff can’t be mind readers nor salesmen nor social butterflies, but within the broad range of personalities, they could do something. As we are a service economy with people holding high customer service expectations, is it wrong to think that we have to step up our game as well? I don’t have a ready made solution for this, but it has been rattling around my brain since it occurred to me this morning.

In any event, it’s something the Marketing Committee will be working on next year. Any thoughts or comments would be helpful.

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.

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

The Library Deconstructed

Photo by svenwerk/Flickr In ruminating on a post on Librarian By Day, I was sitting in the back of the Children’s section of the county library surrounded by rows and rows of books. The hum of the highway behind me is constant on this busy county road as is the sounds of kids and parents navigating the stacks. For a brief moment, alone at one of the work tables in the back, I thought to myself, “What if these books weren’t here? What would take their place?” It’s the ultimate of blank slates. What would you put there? Print? Computers? Reading spaces? Meeting spaces? A coffee bar? What is the new “now” for libraries in design and function?

Personally, I fear that some of my peers would be so distraught by such a dramatic loss of the print collection that they would be paralyzed from seizing the opportunity to innovate the space. This blind allegiance and reliance to a medium would completely sully any sort of exercise in library design, even a fancy of the imagination such as this one. I’m not completely insensitive to their preferences, but for defenders of intellectual freedom, it seems odd to ask for some open mindedness when it comes to our own physical holdings and locations.

But rather than dwell on a space without books, another thought occurred to me. “Where is the real point of contact between patrons and our materials?” While patrons come to us for what they seek, we are but a simple middleman in the process. The real point of contact, in my opinion, is the manner in which people absorb information. The connection of eye and print or picture, of ear and audio, and for some, touch; this is where the library experience is complete. These are the types of transactions we are facilitating. All the debate about what the library space is (should we have coffee bars, ‘loud rooms’, video games, and so forth) melts away into background noise as it reduces everything down to the commodity that we harbor: information, pure and simple. This is the bond we help create, to protect, to nurture, and to teach. And, for myself, this is the distilled essence of the profession.

And it is why I love what I do so very much.

We encourage the people who come to the library to be a blank slate for new authors, new stories, new ideas, and new worlds. We should not fail to apply that advice to ourselves. In helping others establish and maintain their own connections to our holdings, our own attitudes towards the mediums should remain fluid. We owe it to ourselves and the proud tradition we maintain. And, like the concepts and imaginings that pass by as we walk through the library, we owe it to them. Let the flourish in as many ways possible, for no medium is a master over ideas. And ideas, like the paper they are printed on, the people who take care of them or digital space they are stored on, and the buildings that house all of these things, will outlive us. But they rely on us to find them new homes in the minds of our patrons. That is what is important, that is what endures, and that is what sparks the human mind.