the search for the next big thing, ctd.

Yesterday, this article about the Top Provocative Tech Trends came across my Google Reader. The short short version of the article would sound like this: go mobile; embrace open source, open content, and user generated content. As to the first, the timing couldn’t possibly be better for my library system as we had been chosen for a text message marketing pilot program. This program has never been done in the United States and, needless to say, we are excited to be a part of it. It appeals to my science background as I get to approach it like a giant experiment. While we are certainly hoping it will work, even any mistakes we make are tiny victories for the learning process. We are aiming to roll this out on the first week of August. (Which, oddly enough, coincides with my week of vacation.) Today, I did an interview with a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer about the program; the article will appear in tomorrow’s New Jersey section.

Not to parrot the experts on the Tech panel, but mobile is only going to get bigger and better as the technology cycles churn. Libraries are need to start the steps of moving to where our patrons are and that future is web ready phones, PDAs, and other smart phones. I remember the reporter asking me if one of the goals of the program was to get people to come into the library. My reply was something like this: while we would love to see more people in the library, we’d also love for people to be able to use the library resources no matter where they are. I think this took her slightly aback, but it’s the truth: access counts. And I certainly hope that this program is a baby step into the larger mobile forum for the system. It’s a whole new ballgame, as they say, when you can connect people to the help, service, or materials they want with the ease of a text message.

Picture by Travelin' Librarian As to the last three points (since they interrelate), the malleable nature of open source and user generated content will be the fuel of future library experiences. We need the agility of these formats versus the static evolutions of vendor derived content. It’s really that simple. This is a real time information environment; and while I’m sure there is a vendor who can show me that they can do something like that, why even involve them in the first place? There will be no reason to maintain a service request chain that is patron-library-vendor when the best solution will be a locally implemented solution tailored to the problem and the library. It’s a paradigm shift that needs to happen and the sooner the better.

User generated content is where it is at, now and in the foreseeable future. The tools are so simple a child can make and share their creations (and they have). Each software cycle brings us better tools for better interactivity, stoking the collective creative furnaces of users. Just as the library community embraces collaboration across the profession, there is certainly room for our patrons to join this process. People always want more and we certainly should give it to them. As I said earlier, the tools are there. Let’s starting using them.

The Failure of E-Reader Devices, Ctd.

Since my initial post on the subject two and half weeks ago, I have read over the replies that have accumulated across a couple of sites. I’ve appreciated the time that commenters have put into their replies to the post. In reflecting upon the discussions put forth, I can see that major flaw of my post was lumping e-readers and e-book stores together. In separating the two, it creates a pair of much more navigable and manageable issues for the library.

As various replies have correctly pointed out, e-books are already being lent out through libraries by vendors such as Overdrive and Netlibrary. Personally, I’d like to see some of the major e-book dealers (such as Sony and Mobipocket) consider creating lending arrangements with libraries. The additional titles and competition that they would bring would be good for libraries, patrons, and the market. As it stands now, the vendor provided software enables you to read these books on your computer, PDA, or is compatible with a handful of selected e-reader devices. For me, the current issues that dance around e-books are the various levels of permissions that are granted by the publisher and the author when it comes to the transmission of their work. It can be aggravating to show a patron a couple of different e-book choices and then have to go into nitty gritty details as to why one book could be put on a PDA while another cannot. In fact, I’ve had patrons turn down borrowing an e-book since it would not transmit to their iTouch or PDA because they wanted to take the book with them rather than be only allowed to read the book on their personal computer. I would strongly urge e-book lending companies to encourage publishers and authors to allow their materials to be viewed on any device; otherwise, it’s completely useless to the library as a lending material if no one is interested in meeting the requirements.

When it comes to e-readers, it is my fear that we will end up with something that resembles the video game console market. With the Wii, Xbox, and the Playstation, these are a handful of proprietary systems that dominate the market. Wherein the past, a game manufacturer could develop a game that worked on multiple platforms, the current trend is for companies to sign exclusive deals for their product lines. In carrying this over to the e-reader world, it would be the equivalent of James Patterson or Janet Evanovich signing a deal to exclusively publish their e-books through Amazon. The other companies would be snubbed as would any libraries not lending a Kindle (not that you could lend it as it is, but let’s pretend) as would any patrons of those e-reader lending establishments. The expense and hassle of these proprietary devices plus their propriety book formats would create a decision for a library as to whether to collect a single e-reader format or multiple types. Given the nature of budgets this year, my inclination would be the former strategy would be adopted. Overall, under this scenario, libraries and patrons would lose out in terms of access to materials.

It is my fervent hope and desire that the focus of e-reader manufacturers change from proprietary to universal platforms in which a device could read any e-book. But, alas, I think we are a few business and technology cycles away from any sort of movement towards that lofty ideal.

I am still quite serious about getting companies to allow libraries to lend their devices. So, in the hopes of turning words into actions, earlier last week I started to contact the various e-reader device makers about creating a terms of service or other arrangement that would allow libraries to lend their devices. My basic question each appeared like this:

“I have a question that I’d like someone to help me with: why is [name of company] not creating a special Terms of Service for libraries so that we can lend out [their device] with content and not risk a licensing breach?”

Depending on the web form or email, I would copy an excerpt of my post and include a link to the original post. Here’s the rundown of replies thus far:

- Sony was a complete (unsurprising) run around.

From my initial submission:

Thank you for contacting Sony Technical Support.

We appreciate the time you have taken to write us. Your email has been assigned Case ID XXXXXX. An email support agent should reply to your letter within the next 24 hours. Occasionally some inquiries will require additional time.

Thank you for your patience as we strive to provide you with the best service and support possible.

The Sony Online Support Team

Within an hour, I got a reply:

[AndyW],

Thank you for contacting Sony Support.

While we have been working hard to make the Digital Reader the best product on the market today, there is always room for improvement. We look forward to getting this type of customer response on our designs and will do our best to incorporate as many as possible in the future. To submit such requests we have established a dedicated email address. Please send all such comments to: feedback@ebookstore.sony.com

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Thank you for understanding.

The Sony Email Response Team
C6LD
Paul

So I sent off my initial query to the email address and got back a rather irrelevant reply.

Thank you for your feedback! We read every submission to help us define the future direction of the store.
If your request is for a new title or author to be added, we are working to add new content regularly so please check back often. Also, if you have not already done so, be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter that highlights new releases and additions and well as promotions and special offers.

To sign-up for our newsletter:
1.      Launch the eBook Library Software.
2.      Click on “My account” at the top and Sign in.
3.      Choose “Update Newsletter Settings” in the “Newsletters and Notifications” section.
4.      Check the newsletters you want to subscribe to.
5.      Click “Submit”.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your comments with us!
Regards,
The eBook Store from Sony

Hello, customer service fail! I’m not really sure where to go from there, since their customer service website is mired with communication pitfalls. I’d love to be able to try to get someone from corporate who could actually give me a real person reply, but I guess I’m relegated to crossing my fingers and hoping they read this post.

- Foxit, the creators of the eSlick reader, had this response:

Dear [AndyW],
Thanks for your email.
I think it is a good suggestion you have sent.
But we have no plan to do this Marketing mode at present.
For now, we are working on reseller program. Our reseller can place order and Foxit will give some discount for them according to the quantity.
Thanks!
2009-06-02
Best Regards,
Nancy
Foxit Software Company
www.foxitsoftware.com

And since I’m not going to be ordering, I guess I don’t have to worry about that reseller discount.

- Amazon wrote back something that made my eternal optimist stir, but it still leads to me to believe that I got the official brush-off already.

Hello,

Thanks for writing about make libraries able to use Kindles and lend them out with out being in breech of the terms of service. I will pass this information on to our Business teams from review.

Strong customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide, and we’re glad you took time to write to us.

Thanks for your interest in Amazon Kindle.

Please let us know if this e-mail resolved your question:

If yes, click [here]:
If not, click [here]:

Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.

To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help section of our web site.

Best regards,

Jonathan R
Amazon.com
We’re Building Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company

The last line drew a wry grin to my face as a sudden dose of irony. I can only really hope that it is not simply a product of the marketing department. I’ve decided to see if I can get an actual phone call from a customer service individual by choosing the “no” option. Here’s hoping.

- I have an outstanding inquiry with Cool-ER which I should follow-up upon in the next week or so. I’m also still tracking down a place to submit an inquiry for the iLiad reader since their website appears to be uniquely obtuse for customer inquires.

I would encourage those who read this and want their libraries to have the ability to lend devices to do their own contacting of the companies involved in the e-reader business. While my persistence might get me eventually to a real live person (the new pinnacle of the customer service experience in the 21st century), it is only through combined action that libraries will see movement in their favor. E-reader use might not be the reality of today, but as the technology generations improve these devices, I feel that it will be in the future of the library. This is the time to work towards better and more open e-book formats compatible with our lending practices as well as devices for people to read them on. We are positioned to share and shape this future and we should not let it get past us. For our future collections, there is too much at stake to watch the businesses that will influence the patron borrowing interests of tomorrow proceed without us as an advisor and partner. We owe it to the future of the library to act now.

Cross posted at LISnews.org

The Spirit of the ‘Net, Revised

Over Twitter today, one of the people I follow tweeted about an article titled the 10 Golden Rules of the Internet. This article was written by Aliza Sherman, the owner of the first female Internet company, Cybergrrl Inc. She certainly has made her bones when it comes to the internet and technology. But, to be honest, the first rule of her Golden 10 set my teeth on edge.

1. Respect the Spirit of the ‘Net. Since 1995, I’ve been writing about and talking about what I call the “Spirit of the ‘Net.” The Internet was not meant for marketing and selling but for communication and connection to people and information. Understanding this, even today, can flip your marketing and selling strategy on its head, but you’ll have far more success respecting the spirit of the ‘Net, rather than throwing money at hard-sell tactics.

(Bold emphasis mine.)

The teeth-on-edge part is more due to my personality quirk of being extraordinarily nit picky for historical accuracy. While communication and information sharing were a reason for the development of the Internet and the various Internet predecessors, the intent of this creation was facilitate technology development to defend against a potential missile attack by the Soviet Union. Let’s not romanticize the fact that the Internet is the product of the military industrial complex looking for better ways to ensure that our nukes would work while we stopped theirs. From there, various academic institutions used the development of various transfer protocols to allow for the sharing of research information between scientists. Even the academic users got pissed when the commercial sector became interested and formed the first ISPs. Then (and only then) did it manage to crawl its way to the public sector where personal and business driven demand encouraged the developments that we have seen in the last fifteen years, taking us from a text only output to the websites with animations, sights, and sounds that play like little movies on our screen. In that context, the Internet was birthed from the loins of the Cold War arms race, grew up in the labs of universities and colleges, and came to age in the commercial sector. While one could distill the reasoning as being communication and people connection, I would hardly say that the underlying factors are completely altruistic. (Read more here, here, and here.)

The other thing that rubs me the wrong way about the Aliza’s first rule is the term “not meant for”. To put such a limiting phrase in connection with the Internet seems, well, at odds with the true potential and application of the technology. If I had read that ten years ago, I would have agreed; but now, in looking at the exponential growth of applications and possibilities of the ‘Net, it feels short sighted.

The beauty, the magic, and the mystique of the Internet is that it is whatever the user wants it to be. It’s the technology equivalent of the The Mirror of Erised upon which a user can gaze into their web browser and see whatever they hold in their hearts. Hell, it goes a step beyond that, where a person can find, share, and create content as they best see fit.

I would take the two mentioned exceptions and turn them into a question. So what if someone wants to use the web for marketing? So what if someone wants to use the web for shopping? Hell, let’s just change the question into a generic “so what if someone wants to use the web for X?” and replace X with whatever so called objectionable term that is supposedly against “the spirit of the ‘Net”. My answer to each and every one would be that the Internet has grown large enough to accommodate all of these different types of uses and users.

For myself, the spirit of the ‘Net is the staggering number of connections that are made each and every day. Whether it is person, a business, charity, activist group, concept, or simply an idea, it is the link between any of these that holds the true spirit of the ‘Net. It provides the intellectual freedom to explore beyond our physical sight, reach, and limitations. It transcends international borders, governments, languages, and cultures to create the simplest of all connections, Point A to Point B. It rests in the hands of the user to define what A and B are, to find or create the link between them, and to give the proper context for themselves or others.

In the scope of the larger picture, shopping and marketing don’t even appear on my internet issues radar. There are bigger concerns such as open access, net neutrality, regional censorship, and finding ways to increase the reach of the internet to developing nations and areas around the world. There are still more connections to be made, more functions to be found, and uses to be implemented. The ‘Net has come a long way in the last fifteen years, but it has not nearly achieved its potential for limitless connections. It reminds me of the end of the Robert Frost poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The Personal Reference Touch

Within the last year or so, I’ve read and heard a lot of discussion about how the library could take lessons from retail. Most notably, the retail industry has done all of the research when it comes to layout and design of spaces. They know how people shop, how people act when presented with a layout, display, or other store feature, and how to adjust things so as to get the most desirable consumer reaction. The department stores you walk into are the sum total of this exploration into how people hunt and gather for their shopping needs. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, really, to mimic some of these attributes with our own libraries. If we can get people to take a second look or listen to what we have to offer, it is certainly energy well spent.

There is also some discussion about what lessons we can take from retail customer service. Patrons have come to expect a similar customer experience since they are engaging in the same steps (e.g. find a product, bring it to a counter, hand over a card, get the product and card back, leave). I think that, while a retail style interaction is logical for the circulation desk, I would hesitate to apply the principles to the reference desk. Any librarian can tell you of the many common questions and requests to the gamut of deeper inquiries and searches that patrons can bring. The principles of retail, for me, seem to fall flat on their face in the face of such diversity. I had been wracking my brain for a better customer interaction model for a good week and I think I’ve stumbled upon it: concierge.

Most online definitions of a concierge lean towards someone who cares for the physical needs of their clients, but I’d like to think that the underlying concept is still sound. It is a person who attends to the requests and needs of their client (in this case a patron). While it’s not setting appointments or arranging for dry cleaning, I don’t see much of a difference in placing holds, making calls on their behalf to other libraries for information, assisting with computer or copier problems, or researching complicated questions. Each patron comes to the reference desk with their own inquiries and requests. The customer service goal of the reference librarian should be to provide the patron with a personally tailored experience. That type of interaction is what brings people back to the library over time as they know that there is someone who will invest time and effort into what they seek. Much in the same way that a hotel concierge sees to the needs of guests, a reference librarian attends to the intellectual needs of the patron.

For certain, the next time my job title comes up, I’m going to be pressing for “Information Concierge”. It just has a special ring to it.

Cross posted to LISNews.

the search for the next big thing, ctd

Awhile back, I had written about trying to figure out the next big thing for libraries and library science. This past week, I had the fun privilege of attending the 2009 NJLA conference. I would not say that the conference provided an answer about what the next big thing is as that would suggest a conclusion to the search. I did feel that the conferences I attended indicated a new direction worthy of following. Well, a “new to me” direction, for I don’t think I had a true original revelation for my profession, but the concepts presented have consumed my thought processes for the couple of days afterward.

There is a saying in library circles that goes like this: “a good library should have something to offend everyone”. I’d like to add a corollary to this well known collection development mantra: “a good library should have a feature for everyone.” The advent of the internet and other information transmission technologies have displaced libraries as the information monopolies that they enjoyed since the days of Alexandria. Much in the way that the United States have switched from a manufacturing to a service economy, libraries are still experiencing the postpartum pains of transforming from information gatekeepers to guides. Knowledge and learning are the old buzz words that get thrown around when people talk about the library; enrichment and service should be the new ones. Our academic credentials are well established, but we need to aggressively break that mold and show patrons that we have more to offer that can enhance their lives. We need present ourselves as having features and services available that compliment their interests and desires.

And what sort of services and features should we offer? In my opinion, it is to meet the patron on the communication medium of their choice (a.k.a. “where the rubber meets the road”). Whether it is in person, phone, email, or text, we need to be able to act and converse on all of those levels. With the glut of information in various forms out there, we need to provide guidance for people to get to the right information, to find the proper resources, and sage advice on how to navigate the barrage of potential sources. In exchange, we learn from our patrons (directly or indirectly) what communication tools they use in their lives and what they prefer. I think we are in another case of trying to catch up with technology, only with much worse timing than the internet during the business boom of the 1990’s. It is falling right in the midst of an economic recession and government interested in trimming budgets where libraries are viewed as cost centers rather than valued citizen resources.

Right now, I know how the budget at my branch is fairing. I know that if I want to do something with text service, I’m going to have to get pretty damn creative and look for free and/or open source solutions to add that to my branch’s services. It frustrates me since I know some of the solutions are within “easy” reach save for the fact that I lack the technical knowledge to fully understand them. I’ll have to get someone smarter than myself (not a real stretch) to be able to explain whether or not it can be implemented to me.  As our system blocks Myspace and Facebook, I am less inclined to start a presence on either site. But I am eager to learn more about Facebook opening up its API to developers, so any sort of foot dragging may be rewarded after all. Twitter, which has caught my fancy these days, presents a mixed bag as there are user retention issues for this microblogging/micromessaging social site. The limitation of the 160 character box for both Twitter and text works well in focusing a message, but it does poorly for presenting larger concepts, instruction, library news, or issues. Yes, there are url shortening services out there that are coming into heavier use, but this would rely on the end user clicking on the link rather than having the sum total of the message presented in the text or Tweet. Beyond that, we get into library philosophy debates as to whether we are able to provide all the answers for a patron on such a short format, regardless as to whether it is the patron’s preferred method of communication or not.

The one concept from the conference that most intrigued me was mobile reference. It’s very simple deal, really: take a librarian, add a smartphone with a data plan, and cut them loose into the wild. I’m not necessarily talking about a door to door salesman approach, but the purpose of mobile reference would be engage people outside the physical setting of the library and provide a sampling of library services. For more information, a mobile reference librarian would say as they handed over the library pamphlet, you can visit, call, or check us out on the web. Ok, perhaps there is some salesmanship, but that is no different than when a person is seated behind a desk talking about a new program, service, or event. It also establishes a presence outside of the library and creates a new way for the patrons to use the library.

I can see what the arguments against mobile reference might say. Where is the patron need for this service? How do we target an audience? Is this is a good use of staff time? I don’t have those answers at this time. What I do know is this: whether we like it or not, the internet has blown the walls off the libraries as a knowledge center, yet our single focus remains on what we can do within the confines of the building. Mobile technology has liberated us from the land line and given us the potential to do library service anywhere there is a viable internet connection, yet we are content to sit at the reference desk window and watch the world go by. It is hard enough to compete with the convenience of the personal computer versus driving, walking, or even phoning or emailing the library; we should not limit the ways in which we offer ourselves to our patron community. This is more passion than facts, for certain, but I do feel strongly enough about it to do more research into the subject.

Is all this talk pie in the sky? Maybe. But I do think we run a constant danger of putting ourselves in a perpetual catchup situation for adding emerging and/or established technologies. We need to become better at identifying technology trends, budget for it in due time, and make it connect with what we have to offer while it is still a popular technology. We won’t be able to sit on our duffs as much anymore, but that reference desk chair is not as comfortable as it once was for me. Not after the conference. We see how our patrons use technology everyday. We need to pay closer attention, see what it is, and then start looking where it is going. That will put us back on the forefront of the information age.

the faulty model of newsprint media

At the end of last week, the New York Times Company threatened to close down the Boston Globe unless the employee unions agreed to $20 million in cuts. This comes on the heels of comments by NYT executive editor Bill Keller speaking to an audience at Stanford in which he stated “saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur as a high-minded cause.” (He clarifies his statement to relate it to the relative level of interest in the survival of the Times, not as a human rights intervention. This doesn’t change the extraordinarily poor choice of comparative terms.) It’s not the only newspaper in trouble within recent memory. The Tribune Company (owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2008. The Philadelphia Inquirer filed in late February and the Rocky Mountain News (Denver) closed its doors just shy of 150 years of printing. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dropped the print edition in favor of a web only edition.

While this traditional type of media is reeling financially, I think that newsprint media and technology have reached a crossroads of opportunity. The best example of this opportunity resides in the newspaper subscription service for the Kindle. The device is capable of downloading and updating content (such as newspaper subscriptions) automatically through available technological networks. This means you can wake up in the morning, roll over, hit your alarm, pick up your reader off the nightstand, and have the paper (so to speak) in your hands. In addition, it satisfies a push for greener technologies that will reduce a carbon footprint such as materials (paper and ink) and fuel. This is the sort of technology that the newspapers should be pushing the market to develop: a cheaper media reader (much cheaper than the Kindle’s $360 price tag) that can allow people to subscribe to their web content.

While there are arguments that print media is a victim of the economy or the public’s reading habits, I personally don’t find them compelling enough. The lack of movement towards digital content represents a lack of innovation on the part of the newspaper companies. And it’s not like they didn’t see it coming with the rise of Mobipocket Reader or the Kindle. We are becoming a “fingertip society”, for we expect information to be found at our fingertips when desired. While I cannot deny the pleasurable sensory experience in the feel of newspaper, the smell of the ink, or the crinkles of the sheets when turned, it is the content that is the selling point. A searchable digital format is what people have come to expect in their information experience. While there is much lost from the lack of serendipity browsing in these formats, there are greater gains to be made here in preserving these journalist institutions.

This reasoning also covers readering habits as it relates to how people are perceiving the information around them. Awhile ago (and I can’t remember or find the source now), I remember a  study that indicated that leisure reading is down across all age groups. However, this is an incomplete analysis for it fails to mention that the number of information mediums has gone up. Whether it is the web, text, video, or peer to peer referral, the increase in the types of media and means for people to get information has pushed newsprint media from being one of a few to one of many choices. In part with the aforementioned instant access that society has come to expect, this makes the current newspaper format a dinosaur of the information age. It does make me sad to say that I believe newsprint is on its way out; I have tons of memories of reading the comics with my father or the things I’ve discovered by thumbing through a section. But I cannot deny the financial situation nor the information trends which are moving away from it.

They are late off the starting block, but traditional news media can catch up. The technology is here or a few innovation generations away from where it needs to be for newspapers to fully take advantage of it. I will hope that there is some companies left to take advantage of it.

(Posted at LISNews)