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.

What if paper was invented today?

Boss: “So, Jim, I got your carving about this new invention of yours called [looks down at the heavy flat slate rock in his arms] pap-par?”

Jim: “It’s pronounced ‘pay-per’! And yes, I believe it will revolutionize how we keep information!”

Boss: [eyebrow arched] “Is that so?”

Jim: “Yeah! We wouldn’t have to keep things on slate or granite or rocks or walls!”

Boss: “Alrighty then, let’s see it!”

[Jim pulls out a sheet of paper and hands it to the Boss]

Jim: “Ta da!”

Boss: “Whoa! It’s so… thin! And light!”

Jim: “I know! With this, we won’t have to carry around heavy tablets! And check this out! [takes the sheet of paper from the Boss’s hand] We can use the same ink that we use to paint on it! [starts drawing lines and writing words] And once you are done, you can roll it or fold it for easy storage.” [folds it over and hands it back to the Boss]

Boss: “Amazing. Simply amazing.”

Jim: “I know!”

Boss: “This is great, Jim! This could change everythi- [the paper tears slightly] What the-”

Jim: “Oh, yeah, the paper is easy to tear. Be careful with that.”

Boss: “I see. We’ll have to mark that down on the label. ‘Use caution: May easily tear.’ [apprehensive pause] Is there anything else I should know about this?”

Jim: “There might be some other things that would turn off potential consumers.”

Boss: “Like?”

Jim: [sighs] “It’s flammable.”

Boss: “How flammable?”

Jim: “Quite.” [holds up a match to the cover of the page. It lights quickly.]

Boss: “Oh my-”

Jim: [patting out the flame] “Yeah… that will have to go on the label as well. ‘Caution: Flammable’”

Boss: [pulling the partially burned page from Jim’s hand] “Well, Jim, I think this still has potential. Marketing can handle those drawbacks and we can run that little text at the bottom of the screen for the television ads. So long as we put the warning labels on, we should be in the cl- Oww!” [drops the paper to the floor and pulls his hand to his face]

Jim: “What!”

Boss: “The edge of this pap-par! It- it… cut me! [starts sucking on the paper cut] That really stung!”

Jim: “Look, it’s only a scratch! And it goes away quickly!”

Boss: “Oh, so do you want to answer those lawsuits when people cut themselves worse on this? [grimaces at the sheet of paper lying on the floor] Next you’ll say is that it was made using chemicals.”

Jim: “Not exactly…”

Boss: “But?”

Jim: “It is made from wood pulp. [Boss cocks his head to the side looking at Jim] Which comes from grinding up trees.’”

Boss: “Are you KIDDING me? If the environmentalists get a hold of that fact, they’ll have a fit. They’ll want to know what kinds of tree are used and how many and where they are coming from and what they are displacing when you cut them down! This is a NIGHTMARE! It tears easily, it catches on fire from the tiniest of flames, the edge can cut you, and now you are telling me that THIS [picks up the torn burnt paper and starts shaking it in the air] is made from TREES? Are you F-ING kidding me? This thing will have a scariest warning label in the HISTORY of the INDUSTRY. There is NO way that ANYONE will BUY this. At least with stone tablets, we just tell people ‘Oh, mind your feet if you drop it’ and ‘Carrying it around is like another exercise workout’. There is a positive spin we can put on tablets. [waves his finger at the paper] There is NOTHING we can SAY about THIS, this, this pap-par that will overcome the inherent DANGER! Who wants to buy something that says ‘Warning: Flammable. Easily tears. Edges are sharp and may cut you.’ We might as well throw in a ‘Do not eat’ to round it out! I mean, HONESTLY, how in the HELL are WE supposed to SELL this as a REPLACEMENT to the stone tablet?!?” [Boss stands there a moment, nosily breathing in and out as his anger swells]

Jim: [meekly] “…I can work on it some more.”

Boss: [puts his arm around Jim] “Jim, it’s a good step. But, it’s not ready for prime time. There are just too many potential lawsuits and liabilities at this time. But, I know you’re on the right track. Someday, we’ll replace these heavy stone tablets. Maybe, you could work on a lighter stone tablet. Strong rock but lighter. Something that won’t break your toes when you drop it on your foot. Something that you could either chalk or chisel. That’s the future, my boy.”

I originally wanted to make this an allegory about libraries, books, and e-readers, but this direction was much funnier in my opinion. =D

Saturday Night Deep Thoughts

Photo by YaniG The other night, I was checking out the ALA Read poster box set on the ALA site. When I was looking at the results of a Google Image Search for examples of posters (search times: "read poster”) I noticed one thing: all of the people in the posters were holding books. While that might not be a shock to the majority of people reading this post, for me it doesn’t properly represent the underlying concept that it is advocating. Where are the magazines? Where are the blogs? Where are the books on e-reader devices? I mean, I am not saying that someone should be posing with the back of cereal box, but a showcase of the various written formats might be more appropriate in this day and age.

If anyone out there was up for it and had access to the set, I’d gladly pose for a READ poster with my laptop featuring my favorite blog.