The Library Reloaded: Library Cards

Photo by NJLA/Flickr While I was taking a break working on a blog entry, this post by Patrick Sweeney about getting rid of library cards showed up in my Google Reader. He talks about replacing library cards with user names and passwords, with authentication control happening at the library locations. I thought this was such a different take on the one traditional part of the library experience that I started to write a reply. What I wrote grew beyond what felt like a simple note so I decided to drop my current post and craft this one.

So,  with the spirit of Patrick’s post in mind (getting rid of library cards), I started to think about what existing technology that we have now that could be adopted to fit this ultimate goal. In leaning back in my desk chair and rolling the puzzle around in my head, I brought it down to a few requirements: provide the same level of authentication (for privacy), provide the same level of permissions on and off site (for access), and be arguably easier and cheaper than the process it replaces (issuing library cards). Under those guidelines, I’d like to propose some additional alternatives to the library card (with varying degrees of viability).

1.) Cell phone wallet: Popular in the countries like Japan and South Korea, your library card information is stored on your mobile device. Simply by swiping your phone on a signal reader, you can use it for all of your library business (e.g. checking your account, borrowing materials). Computers in the library could be fitted with readers. For offsite authentication (such as remote account and database access), the user could simply retrieve their stored card number from the phone.

The major con for this is that not everyone has a cell phone, whether they are too young (think babies, toddlers, kindergarten through whenever their parents want to five them phones) or they cannot afford one with cell phone wallet capability. While the technology is popular in other countries, it has not taken off in the United States. In addition, this could also pose account management issues with people wanting to lend their card to others to check out materials, use computers, and other situations of permissible card lending. Unlike a card, a cell phone does not lend itself as well to lending.

2.) Fingerprint Scanner: No need to carry a card when you are using your fingerprint for authentication. Fingerprint scanners have come down in price to being under $100, a figure that is relatively easy to reach. Just scan your thumb or forefinger at the circulation desk or computer lab to prove your identity. It’s more reliable and secure than a library card since fingerprints are a unique biometric. The patron’s privacy is secure behind the fingerprint; it also completely removes the need to remember a library card while providing an accurate way of identifying patrons.

As nifty as this would be, it completely fails the off site authentication test. It would have to rely on a supplemental piece of material so that people could remotely access accounts and databases. However, for libraries where the materials and databases are not generally reached offsite (think of certain types of special libraries), this might be the right approach to securing access to sensitive materials. Like the cell phone wallet, it also creates the same issues for lending of library cards or allowing multiple people to use a card. Also, it does not address the issue of the small number of people who are without hands.

(My next suggestion doesn’t get rid of the library card, per se. However, I think it does present another possibility to the alternative of the library card.)

3.) A hybrid RFID card/’one button’ authenticator: Ok, so this device doesn’t exist, but it does take two types of existing technologies that would not work for the purposes of this idea experiment and put them together. Yes, it’s still something people would need to carry, but I think it could have broader implications and aspirations for a simple library card.

The RFID provides the on site identification for materials. Swipe the card past a reader, do your library business, done. I think the potential for RFID in libraries goes further by acting as a library card in multiple locations. The idea of a single card being able to access multiple locations (for example, your library, your state’s library, and the Library of Congress) would be the ideal; a single library card to access everything.

The one button authenticator provides the off side identification. Pressing the button provides a unique and time sensitive series of numbers to be entered into the interface to provide access. This is used currently in the private sector for secure computer networks (including the largest massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, World of Warcraft, with over 13 million players) Within a combined system, it could provide remote access to accounts and subscription materials for a spectrum of libraries.

While it solves the problems of remote access that are shared by the cell phone wallet and fingerprinting, each technology carries its own baggage. RFID has privacy and security implications that make it a vulnerable means while the ‘one button’ authenticator has the chance of failing like any other computer chip. In addition, there is the additional cost this would incur in the form of cards, readers, and staff training.

I will admit that it is a bit of technology overkill for solving a simpler problem, but it was still fun to imagine. I really liked Patrick’s post because it was bold in its questioning of a status quo. Perhaps libraries won’t replace cards, but it doesn’t hurt to go back and examine practices to either reaffirm, renovate, or remove them. It is this kind of inquiry that tests the boundaries and makes the occupation and practice more interesting to me.

Overall, I think there are alternatives to library cards, but it is on a location and library type basis. There are enough nuances to this that, in the right situation, a library could replace their cards with something else. Perhaps it is on this micro scale that card alternatives could be considered, so long as it is a true replacement and capable of community-wide acceptance. In any case, I wouldn’t think it would be a daring statement to say that anything that eases the patron-library interaction would be possible welcome addition.

 

Previous Library Reloaded post: Collections

Re: Nothing is the Future, ctd.

Some of the commenters to Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s post “Nothing is the Future” seem to be under the odd impression that his post is an response to Library 2.0/101. It could be one till you get to the last paragraph of his post.

I’ve used "mobile" just as one example. The same could be said of various service or organization models. You can plug in any term you want, and know that when anyone tells you that thing is "the future," they’re wrong. And to be clear, my criticism isn’t of any particular services or trends. If there’s a new, popular way for librarians to communicate with or reach out to library users, by all means librarians should adopt it, or at least experiment with it. My criticism is the hype and the reductionism, and the implied claim that some librarians really know what the future holds, and that it just happens to be centered around whatever they happen to like at the moment. Maybe they’re convincing themselves, but they’re not convincing me.

(Emphasis mine.)

From the bolded text, Mr. Bivens-Tatum is addressing all forms of library future hyperbole. While Library 2.0/101 make an excellent target for such criticism, the logic presented also makes an excellent case for the librarians who are overly cautious and/or completely rejecting minor changes to the practice and profession (e.g. the people who make the overzealous argument that rejects any new service, program, event, material, web tool, or website based on their own biases without patron consideration or input). It’s a dangerous, dismissive, and ultimately untenable position to maintain in this information-communication revolution. It’s antithetical of the evolution of knowledge and ultimately critical of anyone working on better content delivery, regardless of their means and methods. If the zealotry of the web 2.0 techno-narcissists with their grand prophetic-like innovation announcements is bad, then their counterpart in the sneering cynical criticisms of pompous ludbrarians[1] rejecting deviance from the status quo is equally harmful for rational forward looking discourse.

(To provide a visualization of how I am seeing this, I made up a simple chart.)

4327174388_3031ab946b_b[1]

I count myself in the middle of this chart, perhaps with a leaning towards the right end. The middle sentence between the two bolded ones in the quotation holds more of the essence of the “change in the library” conversation that I’m interested in. It is about watching and listening to what patrons are doing and saying and then providing materials and services that work towards or meet their expressed needs. If I can provide both a low tech or a high tech solution, who gives a damn which is used so long as there is a solution? I am beholden to the end result (patron with need satisfied), not the process that achieved it.

Tim Spalding in the Thingology blog makes an excellent concluding point in his reply to the Academic Librarian post, stating:

It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to "kick it up a notch" intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.

(Emphasis mine.)

I couldn’t agree more. It’s really time to get past the crap, get over our hang-ups, and talk like adults. This divisiveness that has been generated is really beneath a profession who values the free exchange of ideas. Let’s start acting like it.

[1] Luddite + Librarian = Ludbrarians.

Re: Nothing is the Future

This is a reaction post of “Nothing is the Future” by Wayne Bivens-Tatum (Academic Librarian).

While my astute professional peer makes excellent points concerning the hyperbole in library technology trends, I feel that there is an excellent lesson to his post: while librarians can and should act as leaders for their patrons, they should also be followers and listeners. I see librarians as bridging the gap between the past and future, interacting on a medium of the patron’s choosing. While we should have an eye to emerging technologies to gauge their development and adoption by society as a whole, it behooves us to remain mindful of the established and accepted communication mediums. Yes, there are marvels of the digital age and certainly things that librarians should be aware of[1], but it is folly to set sights constantly on the horizon to the detriment of what currently exists and works.

In following, it is not for our patrons to take us to a brand new technologies, but to remind us of the merits of existing ones. As Mr. Bivens-Tatum simply states, people still interact with the library using letters, telephone, and other last established technologies. There should be no rush to usher to declare these mediums dead in the favor of what holds the current fancy of the technological vanguard. In listening to what patrons want and use, we are performing the most basic function of the library: giving people what they actually asking for. Simply put, it is the act of matching the demand that the patrons have articulated to us as a wanted and desired material or service.

To this end, my take on Mr. Bivens-Tatum’s blog title would change it to “People are the Future”. In the greater picture, our existence is constantly in their hands. At the local level, they will always (hopefully) tell us what can be done to meet their needs. Whether this is a mobile app or extended weekend hours, only the community that we serve can answer that question. People are the future for libraries, for they are the ones who dictate our services, programs, collections, and, ultimately, our fates.

 

[1] Personally, I don’t take all of the Library 101 RTK list literally. I don’t think that librarians need to know how Hulu works (to use the most infamous example), but the important takeaway is that this presents a trend of television on demand via the internet (something very worthy of notice as all forms of television and movie content make their way to online). Same goes for a lot of the named products, sites, and items on that list. The 101 RTK list gives an excellent heads-up to some of the emerging trends in information and communication.

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

To Boldly Go…

Image by darkmatter/Flickr Last month, there was the widely reported story about a private school in Massachusetts that removed all of its books from its library. (I’ve written about it before here.) Later, it became clear that other departments had the chance to take books from the collection before the rest were removed. There was a lot of discussion in the online library community about the move and brought up the integral question: can a library exist without books?

For those who can’t imagine a library without books, that kind of future has already been visualized. This was my recent epiphany watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Sci-Fi (I refuse to call it SyFy). As I watched the crew of the Enterprise deal with the episode’s problem, I could not help but notice the use of handheld devices, people reading nearly exclusively from monitors during their down time, and a computer system of near infinite cultural material storage and retrieval. And so here it was on the screen in front of me: a popular, highly regarded vision of a future space based society and nary a book to be found. The few books that do appear are highly prized personal possessions described by their owner as having been passed down from other family members or some other sentimental reason. No one ever appears to use their fabulous replicator technology to have a book created. They are content to use their view screens or handheld devices to do any reading. There is no ship library nor librarian nor even a information officer on a space ship that was reported to carry over 1,000 people. It simply did not exist within the confines of the Star Trek universe. And yet, it is an advanced and complex thriving intellectual and curious society that continues to push the boundaries of knowledge.

Of course, it’s a science fiction series, not an actual depiction of the future. But what may seem depressing to some who read this, I see the ultimate in information interfaces. Upon second glance, this future meets some of the very needs that we want for our customers now. Information is instant, free, and on demand. The computer acts as a reference librarian with a vast database of all forms of knowledge; a person can make factual inquiries as well as user defined analytical requests as well. The holodecks take visual learning and content immersion to a whole new level of information presentation. The closest we get to this future vision is the handheld reading devices of the 1987 series that have an eerie resemblance to the modern handheld e-reader devices. And I would guess that someone has to program the computer and instruct it how to store and organize information lest the whole system become too unwieldy.

The truth of this future vision is that the entity of the library has wholly integrated itself into the daily lives of society. (Or, to take the line from that awesome library video, “everywhere is here”.) There is no need for a library as its own space when access is universal at the personal level. Effectively, in this future vision, librarians have been put out of business by a society that has realized the goals that we strive for now. Can this presentation of the 23rd century be any more of a positive reinforcement of the principles and goals of librarianship?

While I was writing this, I couldn’t help but think about Steven Bell’s article on the Library Journal website, “We need a new Sputnik”. While he was addressing the future research function in academic libraries, it really got me thinking about the types of changes that should be considered for the future public library. I’m going to think about it for now since it deserves its own post. But it has certainly lit my imagination afire with the promise and potential. How can we go from where we are now to make this aspect of a future vision a reality?

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.

Hide & Seek

One of my coworkers and I have been working on a fun project for our library over the last couple of weeks. We are creating a geocache to house within the library. (Short explanation: geocaching is a sport in which participants use handheld GPS to locate hidden bins or boxes in any setting. The cache has (at the very least) a ledger to sign; it might have items to exchange, things to do to get credit for finding it, or have clues to other geocaches. For more explanation, here’s the website.) I got the idea for this from one of the “books” my grandmother had on her bookshelf. It’s one of those hollowed out books that you can put small items and valuables into. While I won’t reveal the phony title and name (so that people who might stumble upon this can enjoy the search), here are some pictures to give you a better idea of what it looks like.

 

 

The books as it looks while closed. Note the tape on  the lower left spine. We put a shelf tag on it to make it look like everything else!

 

 

 

 

And here’s the inside, complete with ledger and pen. We have more things to add to the inside, but the basics are there for the moment.

 

 

 

Over the next couple of days, we’ll get the finishing touches on it and shelve it. I’m curious to see who comes to visit it! It’s a unique fun feature for the library, that’s for certain. =D

Library Beyond Print

Photo by ~ Phil Moore/Flickr At the end of last week, there was an article in the Boston Globe talking about a prep school discarding all of their books and converting the library into an information center, complete with Kindles & Sony E-readers, plasma televisions streaming internet video, and coffee bar. Most notably in the article, the headmaster sees books as “an outdated technology, like scrolls before books”. The reaction on Twitter (where the article was linked to me) was mostly sadness and outrage at the decision. (Here’s a quick search regarding it.) I can’t say that my gut reaction wasn’t along those lines; but the more I think about it, the more such a decision makes sense to me.

From the collection development point of view, a non-fiction collection represents a static snapshot of the world as it understood at that moment. In general, from the moment a non-fiction book is printed, the information within starts becoming obsolete. On a long enough time line, this book will be replaced by a new one that reflects the new research, new understandings, and/or new information that has been uncovered on a subject. I will concede that some subjects are going to remain unchanged barring a revolutionary breakthrough. However, when it comes to non-fiction of dynamic subjects such as modern events, science, economics, computers, art, and sports, static print will inevitably be outdated on a regular basis. Within my own library system, parts of our print reference collection are being replaced by virtual reference library. The contemporary nature of subscription services and reference materials on a host of subjects (such as the ones I have named) make a virtual reference collection preferable to a print collection so as to reflect the most up to date information and make it universally available across all of our branches.

In terms of examining a fiction collection from a collection development point of view, the move by the prep school confuses me. Fiction literature, unlike its non-fiction counterpart, does not carry the burden of being dynamic and up to date. Why not keep print copies of the great classics, for they will always be the same? Keeping a print copy on hand couldn’t be that bad, could it? But I think the issue is beyond a collection one; this passage from the article was very telling to me:

School officials said when they checked library records one day last spring only 48 books had been checked out, and 30 of those were children’s books.

In my mind, it turns the issue into a circulation one. As I work on weeding our non-fiction collection at my branch, I’m looking at numbers as a factor as to whether or not I remove a book from the collection. (Don’t worry, it’s not the only factor.) But within your own library, if you have a book that doesn’t circulate, isn’t that the first step towards weeding it from the collection? In this drastic case, all of the books got weeded as one for anemic circulation numbers.

(Aside: In talking about this with The Unquiet Librarian, we are both left with the question: Where is the school librarian in all of this? I would presume under a gag order from the school, but there is no mention of a library staff member from the headmaster or the article. I would be curious what part this person has in the conversion process, if any.)

I think this type of move by a school is intriguing enough to see how it goes; an experiment, if you will. But I think the real question that librarians and library professionals should be asking themselves is this: are we married to a medium or a message? If we fight to preserve books for the sake of books, are we adding argument to our own irrelevancy? Nowhere in the article is it stated that reading is being discouraged; in fact, there is a distinct impression by one of the commenters that using online or e-readers is a second class citizen of reading. (William Powell: ““There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books,’’ he said. “There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.’’) To this point, I cannot agree. It is the words that matter, not the medium on which they are found. An idea does not morph or mutate when it moves from print to screen; only the form of the messenger that relays them.

It is my belief that one of my purposes as a librarian is connect a patron to the literature or information of what they desire regardless of the medium. If a patron wants something in a non-print format (audio, e-book, or video), then I should do my best to get it to them in their preferred format. To outright defend the removal of the print medium regardless of the underlying facts and circumstances is a rehearsal of one’s own prejudices against words found in forms other than print. Librarians are for intellectual freedom with no stipulation as to how the mental investigative process runs; in that capacity, we should look to champion such an ideal in all possible mediums, regardless of our personal preferences.

The strength of the future library collection is not in the total numbers of titles owned, but the number of different formats materials in the collection come in. The book will never die, but the printed page that it is most commonly found in may fade into the background as the paperless book revolution marches forward. This is an exciting time as the barriers to information access crumble away with each technological innovation cycle. This is a time to innovate our services and materials to match this future need.

Photo by antonio.tombolini/Flickr

Right Here, Right Now

This little gem of a YouTube clip came across my Google Reader as a gift from a fellow librarian blog, The MLX Experience. A video on social media set to a Fatboy Slim song? Yes please!

I wouldn’t say that the content surprised me but it did affirm some of my personal hunches. (I would be interested to know where some of the statistics cited originated.) I was surprised that it was a teaser for a book; a four minute ad entertained me when most thirty second ads bore me. Perhaps it because I am the target audience for the ad, but that is is a whole different issue.

The big takeaway for myself from this video is the word “mobile”. Not simply that libraries need to be on cell phones, but that we should be converting our content delivery to be completely mobile. We can create a deeper partnership with the USPS to expand delivery of books, music, and movies to their homes. We can create social network presences to field reference questions on the web and text. We should utilize all of the communication, all of the delivery methods, and all of the social networks to makes library content as widely available as possible.

This is not a call for the physical dismantling of the library, but a revision of how we do business. The flip side of this equation is making the library a true destination, a place where patrons are rewarded with events, classes, and those things that do not translate through the mail or the web. And it has to be personal, from how they are treated to the sitting areas to the computer lounges. While this last part might be a sacrifice to utility, there must be emphasis on the patron experience. This new world of social connection demands it, for to ignore the potential reputation damage would be folly.

Like this website, like the program I used to compose this post, like the computer I am using to write these words, all of the tools are available to make this happen. We just need to put it together.

Enjoy the Silence

Photo by SuvikoThere’s an opinion piece on the Christian Science Monitor website that’s been making the rounds on Twitter and various RSS feeds. A librarian in Texas by the name of William H. Wisner wrote an opinion piece called “Restore the noble purpose of libraries”. And if I read it correctly, the library needs to (1) restore the silence of the library by removing any technology that makes any noise, including ones carried by patrons; (2) remove any form of visual, audio, or interactive technology from the children’s section; (3) librarians need to learn books to the point of oral recitation, regardless of specialty; (4) comes to grips with the fact that libraries are popular because they are free despite our professional ethics which tout that we provide access to all regardless of their ability to provide supporting payment; and (5) that we stop being “information scientists” and start being scholars again through rote memorization of printed materials so we can once again love and defend our societal purpose.

Or, the funnier way of summarizing his article:

I need to stop prostituting myself, learn Middle English, write humorous non-existent interviews with celebrities who used to date while handing out beverages to make the library “personalized” again and restore the public trust.

Either way you look at it, it’s a strange theory.

To his credit, I will now grin like an idiot while I’m refilling the paper to the printer. While I whore myself to the paper beast, I will relish in the idea that the reason the printer is empty is that people decided to print out timely  and relevant information and take it with them. Quite frankly, that’s all the more reason to construct library based mobile applications so that people can reach the same information on their noisy cell phone or noisy laptop. Or more reason for me to teach classes so that people learn how to use all of the library sources from home so they can print on their own paper. Or just embrace a combined format approach that yields the best resource or information regardless of the medium. Or, heck, for that matter, I’ll give them whatever literature work they want in whatever format they want: print, large print, even audio!

By my own admission, I’m not much of a reader. So I will confess that all of these new audio, video, and interactive technologies for children make me pretty jealous. I really had to struggle with reading, not because I was bad at it or suffered a disability, but because it wasn’t as interesting compared to watching or hearing the work. Oh sure, we can dismiss decades worth of studies on the different learning habits of children and just stick with reading. My brain and character certainly aren’t much worse for it after all these years. But I’m not going to work at a library with that kind of children’s section. I’ll be over at the fun library with the games, the videos, and the noisy interaction and enjoy the more progressive learning models.

I’m sad to say that my library doesn’t offer free coffee. Sure, I could lament the fact that people love us because we are free and then proceed to give away something for free, but I’d rather not sully the incredible dividends that taxpayers get from their investment. Nor would I care to disparage all of the free adult and children programming offered that enriches the lives of the patrons who use it. Far be it from me to possibly heap any more disgrace on the dedicated professionals in the field who work longer hours with more responsibilities for stagnant or shrinking wages and benefits because of the love they hold for their patrons and profession. To be fair, I’m sure some of them also offer free coffee.

Mr. Wisner is certainly welcome to his opinion and the enjoyment that he gets from handing out coffee while building relationships by chatting about Proust or Picasso with students and faculty. As for me, you can find me in the future where information architecture and communication networks interact so as to provide seamless content delivery and global sharing of user derived content  while providing the highest level of patron interaction and satisfaction. Oh, there will be books there too. Print is not dead, just it’s business model.

(And if you too enjoyed his opinion piece, you can check out the preview of his book “Wither the postmodern library?” on Google Books. If irony was chocolate, this would be Godiva.