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.

File Under Miscellaneous, Part 1

About two years ago, I was hired as a part time librarian for the library where I now work full time. Recently I’ve been thinking about how some new librarians have taken stock of their experience of the first couple of years in their blogs. They talk about how they have changed professionally, where they think the library field is going, and what their current goals are. These are true exercises in introspection and a meditation on what it is like to be a modern librarian in this age of internet and mobile technology. The challenges, both old and new, renew our commitment to the profession that we love as well as demand new ideas and innovations.

So, as I’m signing a work order for a plumber who came to the building to fix a toilet, I’m thinking about how there are things in public librarianship that are never addressed in Master’s of Library Science program. There was nothing in the management class that has addressed some of the things I have encountered in my two years of public librarianship.

So, in a different sort of listing, here are a few things that were never mentioned in my graduate program about public librarianship but everyone should know about.

(1) Diplomacy

You will need it. You need to be able to effectively communicate to noisy kids, disruptive teens, oblivious parents, passive aggressive seniors, coworkers of various temperaments & theory of librarianship approaches, political officials of all stripes, and the myriad of pleasant to impatient patrons you will meet. This is not to say that every day is filled with social conflict, but that you need to be prepared for it when it happens. It is a fine balance of customer service, library policy, and your own discretion as to what is just and fair that can make or break the encounter. The one truth is that has to be accepted is, no matter how diplomatic you are, there will be people who will not be satisfied no matter what you do. Expend your energy as best you can to get the best result, but do not dwell on what cannot be done.

On the flip side of the coin, diplomacy can be used to negotiate a better deal or experience for a patron. In gauging the patron’s needs, you can raise their expectations by providing services and/or materials above and beyond their original request. This is a “trade up” in which both sides win; you can market other aspects of the library (such as programs and collections) while the patron learns something that they never knew about from the library. By applying your diplomatic skills, you can make a trip to the library a memorable experience. This also allows you to talk a presenter into accepting a few more people into their program, to solicit different types of donations from the community, and to get better deals with vendors. When it comes to getting goods and services for the library, everything is truly negotiable.

(2) Basic mechanical skills

While I’m in a county library and there are people who handle maintenance exclusively, I am still a "first responder" to most building situations. Burned out or flashing lights, wobbly tables, broken chairs, loose shelving, cracked windows, busted doors, stained carpets, broken toilets, various alarm malfunctions (security, generator, sump pump, and/or fire), electrical failures, computer network crashes, ill tempered vending machines, rebellious printers, jammed copiers, the whole HVAC system, leaks of all types, and invasion attempts by birds, rodents, insects, and the whole Fungi kingdom. This does not include things that go wrong outside the building, such as tangled flagpole lines, slippery sidewalks, parking lot accidents, leaky roofs, clogged gutters, laborious snow & ice removal, regular lawn care, and the occasional book drop vandalism. (You get the idea.) Even if I’m not the one who has to fix them, I still have to know who to contact and be able to describe the problem to them. You can go from helping a patron put a hold on a book to reaching into a fish tank up to your shoulder attempting to scoop out a dead fish (true story).

If it has moving or electronic parts, you will soon become an passing expert in it.

(3) Patience

The most obvious application of this virtue is in service of patrons in general, for the life of a public librarian has a lot of explaining in it. Whether it is policy, procedure, materials, or how to retrieve an email or get a library card, you will have to be able to tell someone how to do it or find it. Over time, I have whittled down the script for the most commonly asked things into a concise series of points. And since you will end up repeating the more popular ones several thousand (or million, in a larger library) times, you might as well get used to it.

When it comes to assisting patrons, unless there is a giant pressing line of overtly unhappy people, take the time to fully cover something with a patron. First, it signals to the rest of the line (if any) that, when it is their turn, you will give them your full attention and not rush them out. This can soothe anxious feelings and make them feel that the wait is worthwhile. Second, it is better to have only one 10 minute thorough session with a patron than five 2 minutes sessions during which they struggle. Those multiple trips to the reference desk can lead to frustration and create an overall bad impression. Third, it’s how you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. No one likes feeling at the short end of the stick in a business interaction and the reference desk is no exception. (Mileage of this point at your library will vary.)

The slightly less well known employment of this virtue is shaping policy and implementing changes at the library or system level. The practices and policies of the public library tend to move at a glacial pace, depending on the subject. For any changes that you hope to see through, it will take time and effort to get them to where you want them. Patience and persistence pay off at the end when you affect a major change. And surely as I write these words, you can get it done.

 Photo by the lovely & talented, mlibrarianus/Flickr

When I first started writing this, I had a list of a couple more aspects that I had thought about. They aren’t on the list because they were folded under the aforementioned aspects or I simply couldn’t articulate them in a manner that was satisfactory to me. So, in lieu of being complete, I slapped a “Part 1” in the title and left myself open for future posts. If you can think of things that I perhaps should include in the future (or make your own posts), share your thoughts and links below.

The String Theory of Reference Interviews

Quite frankly, most of the reference desk interactions I have with patrons are pretty rote: material requests, program registration, basic library policy questions, and assistance with whatever piece of technology that is currently misbehaving. But it is the minority of questions and requests that keep my librarian heart warm, for they invoke the exchange known simply as “the reference interview”. This question and answer dialogue is what I live for in this profession; a chance to unravel a mystery, to make the highly unlikely possible, and to make the connection between a patron and their inquiry. Even then, the process is generally short lived. The majority of patrons offer enough clues so you can determine what they are looking for and either be able to deliver or inform them of alternatives.

In the past, I’ve taken a bunch of different approaches in explaining the art of reference interview to a non-librarian. The most common was likening it to a game of 20 Questions. While it has been a somewhat satisfactory explanation to me, all the exceptions and variations I inevitably end up throwing in make it feel clunky. Then, when I was out getting lunch today, I had a quasi-science nerd moment: the reference interview operates in five distinct dimensions. This immediately reminded me of string theory, a scientific concept which describes the universe in roughly ten dimensions. (Yes, this is an oversimplification, so read the Wikipedia article if you really want to know more specifics.) Within this theory, there are four observable dimensions: length, width, height, and time; the remaining six cannot be detected directly. With my idea of a five dimensional reference interview, there are similar four observable dimensions and one subjective dimension. As I enjoying likening concepts to one another, please indulge me as I use some of the same names to explain what I mean.

Photo by Rainer Ebert/Flickr

Length in a reference interview is the number of places searched. This can be both physical (different book sections & stacks) and virtual (online catalog, websites, databases, etc.). This can be a single place or numerous locations based on the obscurity of the inquiry and the success of the search. This is where our experience and expertise in accessing the best resource are put to the test; it can also be a learning experience as we find new tools to answer questions.

Width in a reference interview is the number of types of searches made. While most inquiries can be satisfied via author or title search, reference librarians know that subject topic questions can create multiple searches in order to attempt to check all potential resources. It is a test of our recollection of indexing and subject terms, pseudonyms and alternate spellings, and multiple ways of labeling the same thing that guide us through the different search types. It is an exercise in thinking laterally (no pun intended); some searches require us to approach the inquiry from multiple direction.

Height (or depth) in a reference interview is how specific the patron inquiry or end result is. Whether it is the temperature at a town at a specific date and time in 1956 (true story) or all of the books written by Jonathan Kellerman (another true story), it is the degree of detail required to completely answer the inquiry. Listening skills are forefront as the question is analyzed for specificity; interview (questioning) skills can gauge the level of detail in that the patron is expecting. This sort of “zeroing in” is necessary to tell us how far we need to go in our journey for the answer.

Time in a reference interview is the most straightforward concept; it is how much time is spent satisfying the patron inquiry. The duration of the search is highly mutable as it is directly influenced by outside factors (e.g. waiting patrons in person, on the phone, or online; time engagements like programs; other appointments). It requires a good sense of time management as to avoid making the patron feel rushed off with a seemingly incomplete answer or over aggravating patrons in line as they wait their turn. This fine sense of timing assures the patron that we have given their inquiry our full attention while not monopolizing our own time in face of waiting demands.

The fifth dimension of a reference interview is an intangible that I am simply labeling “X factor”; it is the overall patron experience. The best way I can visualize this dimension is through the use of color; specifically, how would a patron describe their experience on a color scale? Would it be a vibrant red, a chilly blue, an affable yellow, or perhaps a growing green? The patron experience of how their inquiries are handled shapes their attitude towards the library. Whether they are treated like an old friend, a troublesome interloper, or a valued customer, patrons take away a distinctive experience that will dictate future library use, the word of mouth to their immediate social circle, and overall sympathy or apathy towards the library. This important subjective aspect is what can turn library users into library advocates. We have the power to turn average and good interactions into excellent ones; we should always seize on these opportunities when presented.

Like string theory, I’m fairly certain there are other dimensions that could be surmised to exist based on this presented concept. (Perhaps it will show up in a future post.) But these five dimensions are a good start in providing a quantifiable means to measure the outcomes of a reference interview. Alone, one could think about how much (or how little) was performed within a dimension and how it related to the end result. Combined, they create a picture in full of the reference interview experience, a mosaic of our knowledge, tools, resources, and people skills. From here, the evolution of the modern reference experience begins.

And to think it only took some theoretical physics to find a more satisfying explanation of the reference interview. =P

Photo by the mad LOLscientist/Flickr

Wednesday Night Open Question

Deserted Island by Mrs eNil

Deserted Island by Mrs eNil

I was browsing The Flavor Bible this evening when I found something that got me thinking. When they polled more than thirty of America’s leading chefs about the ten ingredients they would take to a desert island for the rest of their lives, the number one ingredient was salt. It is nature’s flavor enhancer and an important ingredient for influencing the taste of a dish.

So, I started wondering what ten items a librarian would bring to a deserted island. (Yes, a library on a deserted island. It’s very Gilligan-esque.) Furthermore, what would be the number one thing?

I think the ten item list would get various mileage depending on people’s specialties, but I’m going to hazard a guess for #1:

Index cards.

What do you think?

UPDATE: To rephrase, “if you were EXILED to a deserted island with a library, what item would you bring to help you manage the library for the rest of your life?” How’s that?

To the Moon & Beyond

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The first two sentences of this quotation by President Kennedy have been playing as a clip for some advertisement on television lately. I couldn’t care less as to what they were selling but it did compel me to go look up the full speech. In examining the full passage in which this snippet was taken, the broader motif of a rise to the challenges of the day emerges. It feels strange that the President’s words have come back to relevancy as plans are being made to go back to the Moon again.

I considered how this passage might equate to some of the challenges that are currently facing libraries, but it didn’t feel like it fit quite right within the broader sweeping vision. While the grassroots struggle to preserve public library funding is a true noble cause as it upholds the underlying principles of service and information access to all, there are questions that I still harbor about the evolution of the library. I feel the emotional currents that push the “library as a destination” community center concept. This notion is based around libraries being the last of the dwindling traditional town gathering places, a place with the familial feel of a Norman Rockwell painting. Perhaps not the temple of knowledge it was once perceived, but one where print and digital information and answers researched by a knowledgeable staff can be found. It is a teacher, it is an advisor, it is an entertainer, it is a friend; it is what the patron needs it to be. Yet we still find ourselves being defined by out of date perceptions and stereotypes as to what a library offers and stands for. We let these flourish as we choose to combat them when they arise rather than confronting them and redefining the conversation about the image of the library.

On the other hand, I can’t help but be influenced by the professional articles and conversations I’ve had about (literally) expanding the boundaries of the library into the surrounding community. The rise of Web 2.0 and mobile technology have pushed interpersonal connections and on demand information to unprecedented levels. Online resources in the form of databases and downloads have put previously inaccessible knowledge at the fingertips of the end user. Library automation, while imperfect, has released us from the most mundane aspects of collection management so as to concentrate on the customer experience. We are capable of breaking the tether of the library desk and extending our service reach into our immediate sphere of influence. Technology has freed the profession to take our services anywhere in the world, yet most still subscribe to the antiquated notion of being a passive presence, sitting and waiting to be chosen to answer like the shy smart kid in the classroom. 

So where does that leave us? How do we develop ourselves into a community destination? How do we extend beyond the confines of our buildings? How do we harness the innovations of Web 2.0 and beyond to guide and follow our patrons into the bold web future? How do we move to remain contemporary and relevant within these technology innovation cycles?

The questions presented are nothing truly new or revelatory, but are ones that we as librarians continue to struggle to address the issues they raise. Even as I write this, I wish I could offer any answers but I feel none quite suit. All I feel at this moment is a change in the direction of the wind indicating a new course to undertake. Like the space pioneers before us, it will take the combined effort of the library community to rise to the pressing challenge, to inaugurate a new phase of library evolution, and to work towards our shared information future. I will be bold and say that these concepts presented are the type that progressive librarians are working towards (and some libraries have reached in certain ways), but their much lauded success is tempered by the struggles of others. Only by lifting every library and every librarian to these lofty goals can we reach our own symbolic Moon and the universe that waits beyond. We hold within our grasp the methods and the means to make this so, to organize, to plan, and to proceed. I know there are others who hold similar thoughts in their hearts, who harbor the same desire in direction, and I urge you, “Now is the time to muster and act!” And think to yourself:

“When I look to the sky and see the future of the library in the stars, what do I see?”

I choose to work towards making the library a community destination. I choose to integrate Web 2.0 & social media and to embrace the revolution of user generated content. I choose to work towards erasing the lines of policy and perception that divide us from the people we seek to serve. That I choose these goals not because they are hard, but because they are necessary to continue mankind’s inquiry into themselves and the world around them.

I choose to go to the Moon.

Fight the Power 2.0

It was earlier this year when I realized that the song in the video above, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, was twenty years old. I remember when I was first introduced to Public Enemy back in high school. My friend Adam put on the album “Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black” while we were playing video and board games. It was the first time I had been exposed to hip hop and shortly thereafter it became the first hip hop album I bought. I had never listened to any band with a social and political agenda before Public Enemy. “By the time I get to Arizona”, “Can’t Truss It”, and “Shut’em Down” were like shots being fired across my world perception bow born from my very mundane suburban living. I knew things were not right in the urban community, but I had never heard it told from street perspective. This cultural grain of salt has stayed with me through the years. However, like a lot of my fickle music interests as a teen, the album got heavy play for a month and then retired to a CD folder, rarely to be heard again.

I’ve been thinking about “Fight the Power” recently since I bought the Public Enemy retrospective “Power to the People”. I’ve been playing it on my iPod when I’ve been working on ideas for the library that has been resisted in the past. While the song is more closely identified with a call for racial equality, I thought this article from Salon about the song and its impact said it best: “When Public Enemy called us to battle, it revived the notion that it just might be possible to fight the system. At the very least, we knew it was necessary.”

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been keenly following the state budget battle out in Ohio. Governor Strickland had announced a 50% cut in funding to libraries as part of his proposed budget. Since a majority of libraries are state supported, this would mean the crippling and/or closing of many libraries around the state. I’ve joined and contributed to the Save Ohio Libraries Facebook group that was set up in order to organize rallies, distribute state legislator contacts, and public lobbying of the Governor. The genesis of this group has been phenomenal as it gained over 20,000 members in the first week (the current tally as of the time of this post is roughly 45,000). It is full of photos, links, video, and active postings on the wall and in the discussion boards. While I have not received a message from the group creator, I have been checking it (as well as following #saveohionlibraries on Twitter) for updates as to how things are working out. I can’t say that my posting presence on this massive group has gone unnoticed.

The other night, I got a Facebook message from an Ohio resident which read:

Why posting about Ohio libraries if u r in NJ? My grandchild here in Cleveland can lose her storytime, yours?

My reply to her was:

Because libraries are important, regardless of state borders. I just want to show my support!
NJ has some budget cuts, but we aren’t in the same trouble as Ohio libraries!

Her last message thanked me for my involvement, but this whole series of events has been fascinating. This certainly is not the first time that social media has risen to a grassroots cause, but it was the first time I experienced it from a front row seat. It held me in rapt attention in the evening for most of last week as the number of group members climbed and people started offering their words, links, and other forms of support. In concert with libraries all over the state and the Ohio Library Council, this virtual march ran as a prelude to actual ones. These Buckeyes, proud and defiant, have focused the outrage of the populace into political action. (As of the time of writing, the budget is still in the air.)

As engrossing as this whole situation was to watch unfold in the belly of social media, it was during a drive up to work where I had a thought that gave me significant pause: why is it that the library community can be this organized and passionate when it comes to budget battles and less visible during other times? (With the exception of book challenges, possibly.) Does it take being pushed to the brink of non-existence to ignite the fire in our bellies for our profession and rally the public to our noble cause? What can be done now to prevent putting ourselves in this position in the future?

As it can be expected, I have a few ideas.

We need to radically reframe the public and political dialogue about libraries. How? By advocating that libraries are an essential service of a modern industrialized society. Information literacy has become a new set of basic skills for people living in the developed world. Even if a job does not require them, it is more than likely you will need them to apply to that job as businesses move their employment applications online. Data is the new goal of our hunting and gathering ways, whether it is to determine the lowest airfare available, how to contact an old friend, or find out what the weather will be like tomorrow. Our materials (print, video, audio, web) are fuel for the human curiosity engine that resides in all of us.

We educate, enrich, and enhance the lives of our patrons. Whether it is through materials or programs, computers or classes, or simply being there for our patrons when they are looking for someone to talk to, libraries matter to their communities. There is no private or government entity nor internet service or website that equates to the personal service we offer or the depth and breadth of information we can access. Our role in society is unduplicated, unequaled, and undisputed in this new age of information.

Therefore, we are essential.

In order to broadcast this type of message, it is pressing that we believe in it ourselves. There can be no false enthusiasm or facade to this belief; it must be complete and genuine. Personally, in seeing the passion presented by my peers at conferences and gatherings, this is perhaps the easiest aspect that I am proposing. However, I can see how it would be a true barrier in a world that minimizes and marginalizes the very mission of the library. It is imperative to rise above the critics, to instill ourselves with confidence about our restless profession, and to take pride for our service and toil on behalf of our patrons. For if we don’t believe that we are essential to the public, why should they believe it themselves?

From this, I see the hardest yet most rewarding part: a sustained public movement towards the safeguarding and custodianship of the public library and its ideals. While moving towards this goal can feel Herculean, we are already surrounded by the necessary building blocks.

Some of these are more familiar and “traditional” methods of building relationships with the community by getting to know your patrons and politicians. A Friend’s group can work as an extension of the library as each member becomes an ambassador of the library. Local media in the form of newspapers and radio stations provide a broadcast platform to reach out to the community. Encourage local politicians to define a stance on the library and library funding and invite them to come and see the collection for themselves. In addition, any marketing campaign that can be run (alone or in conjunction with a Friend’s group) at the community level should work to raise the visibility of the library. These tried and true methods are pretty universal for libraries around the country.

Picture by Matt Hamm

On the other hand, there are the exciting new methods possible through web 2.0 social media. Witnessing the growth and development of the Save Ohio Libraries Facebook group has really reinforced this concept with me. For the price of time and effort, you can create content that can be used to reach out and interact with patrons far beyond the walls of the library. It is this extension into the lives of our patrons as a relevant and important service that will ensure the survival of the local library in the future. It latches onto the underlying appeal of constant and immediate contact as offered by text messages, email, and Facebook or Twitter-like updates. With the improvement of our communication technologies, this is the opportunity to groom this technological type of relationship with people. As communication methods grow, as different types of web based social networking appear, and as the product of information evolves, the library needs to be in step with these advances. Our patrons are moving along with the improvements, and so should we.

The difference between the traditional methods and web 2.0 social media is that the latter is more personal since the conversation never ends. Beyond the aforementioned constant contact, it becomes a part of the information lifestyle that people have grown accustomed. We meld into the other popular web services that people use to manage their daily lives. The ability to order groceries online coincides with placing materials on hold; watching YouTube becomes no different than watching a movie on Overdrive; and calling or emailing the reference desk is seen as an upgraded internet search. Not only are the tools on hand, but there are more being developed and refined with each passing software innovation cycle. Twitter, Jaiku, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, Picasa, Blogger, Livejournal, these are examples of social media of today; can you imagine what is down the road from these illustrious starting points? We will never lose the personal touch that is exemplified by more traditional patron relationships, but we should work to enhance it through the communication and information technological wonders of social media.

For librarians looking towards the future of the public library, now is the time to create our own functional social networks for advocacy. Now is the time to forge new friendships and connections with librarians both local and national. And now is the time to share experiences and knowledge resources when it comes to organizing the library grassroots. It is through these bonds that we can support one another during the inevitable crises that play out across the country when the ideals of intellectual freedom are endangered, when our content is challenged, and when our very existence in the community is threatened. Librarians call upon each other to help with a reference question; how can we not call upon others to help one another weather the ideological storms? Our professional egalitarian ideals should not mean that we treat everyone equally yet suffer all of the hardships alone. We are now one immense information sharing entity, intricately connected through phone and ethernet. The closing of one library is a loss of a unique community resource to the whole system and we should treat it as such.

This is not a call to replace specialty or state library associations in their advocacy roles, but to supplement them. Our assets are thousands of additional eyes and ears with computer savvy capable of finding and reporting information back to the others. It is an intelligence network staffed by passionate library professionals that extends wherever a library stands. With the increasing ease of user content creation, information sharing has never been easier for those who are bold enough to utilize it. This is a strength that we should seek to use for the benefit of libraries from coast to coast.

(In terms of the ALA, at least one person I know doesn’t think that the ALA is doing enough. I don’t really know enough about the organization to make any declarative statements, but I have been watching for their actions and words during the Ohio budget crisis.)

I realize in closing that the latter half of this post is more passion than substance in calling for a change in our collective course of action. But passion is the unquenchable thirst that drives each and every one of us to go farther and reach higher, whether as a librarian, an athlete, a parent, or just to be a better person. And library advocacy has become my passion, much in the same way that you can hear it in the voices of the testimonials in this video from NYPL.org:

So, I say to you, dear reader, who is with me?

Dead Wildebeests and the Self Conscious Crocodile: Pres4Lib 2009

The Library is a learning place!On Friday, I went to the Pres4Lib conference organized by the bloggers of Library Garden. It was a conference for presenters and trainers and focused on ways to improve presentation skills and use of media aids. I generally don’t do a lot of presentations in a month, but I do run programs and classes so any sort of help for talking in front of people is a boon to me.

After a good night’s sleep and a glance at my notes, there is a theme that emerges for me: presentations are the product of a human and media symbiotic relationship. While it is true that a person can present without any outside aids (slides, handouts, and the like), the norm for presentations has shifted to a multimedia experience. At a minimum, there should be a visual aid to go along with the speaker’s dialogue. This is the axis point that the relationship of person and technology revolves around, for one can dramatically impact (even overshadow) the other. This isn’t something new to presenters, but it is more of a cautionary tale as presentation tools gain new features.  In addition, each factor is radically different: the human is subjective, the media is objective.

In the Birds of a Feather groups that I attended, there was a lot of talk about the personal aspects of presenting. It felt more like an informal presentation support group in which people swapped stories and traded tips about what works for them. The psychological value of these sessions was innumerable as reminded me that (1) I’m not the only one who gets butterflies, “ums” and “ahs”, and is trying to be comfortable in front of an audience and (2) that presentation style is unique to the person. As for the first, the conference has given me a network of fellow presenters that I can reach out to for advice, encouragement, and commiseration. A little confidence that can come from peer encouragement can go a long way. It also gave me additional ways to think of the audience that my presentation anxiety had not allowed me to previously consider: that the audience does not want the presenter to fail, that they want to get something out of it (even if it means not being uncomfortable during the whole duration of their disinterest in what you have to say), and that they should be treated as passengers in your presentation. To this last aspect, the mere mental image of being a driver giving a tour of a town to his passengers is an oddly soothing thought for me. It erases the notion of adversarial intent and puts me on the same side as those who are hearing me speak: a journey of sight and sound, if you will. 

As for the second point, it is about becoming comfortable with your own personality as a presentation style. A soft spoken introverted nature can be as powerful as a boisterous energetic extrovert when the speaker appears (for lack of a better term) natural. It is the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of presentation skills: working with your personality strengths while minimizing your “weaknesses”. While not all personality types are equally suited for engaging an audience, it is through using your unique combination of traits that can make the presentation memorable. The comfort of being in your own skin combined with the appearance of confidence in rhetoric are distinguishing features that an audience can latch onto and appreciate. I don’t want to break down into clichés such as “You are a beautiful little snowflake”, but for each speaker, the presentation style is personal. Find your comfort zone, be confident in the expression of your concepts and ideas, and let that move your audience to follow you.

The role of media in a presentation is devilishly simple: it is to drive home the talking points of the speaker. And the Devil, as they say, is in the details. There are a number of potential aids in the speaker’s toolbox these days: slides, movies, audio, pictures, whiteboards, and handouts are but a few items to be used. But which ones truly work to support the point you want to make?

Steven Bell’s lightning talk about using video in presentations was my major eye opening experience for the conference. The incorporation of video into a presentation opens up fresh and bold avenues of supporting the presenter’s dialogue. It’s more than just something to keep the audience awake, it is an attention-grabber-and-never-let-go-er. With interview style videos, you can create co-presenters who repeat or reinforce your talking points. It’s the ultimate in "But don’t take my word for it!” type of persuasive speech. The weight and credibility that people lend to a third party is a powerful tool that should be utilized more often when telling a narrative. In addition, it is more exciting than a graph, figure, or other non-moving visual demonstration. Don’t let a chart say it if you can have a real person proclaim it. The ability to use video to show people what you are talking about is an incredible tool in this increasingly visual society.

A close second was John DeMasney’s talk about Picasa presentation slides. While PowerPoint is a standard to most speakers, the flexibility of Picasa in image generation was exciting to me. Static pictures can be used to suggest themes and ideas to get the audience thinking about something before you even say a work about it. With Creative Common images, there is a massive multitude of copyright safe images that can be used in slides. Let the pictures be the accompanying visual to your words. It’s so simple yet so powerful for a speaker; for me, it was a reminder that even the most simple of visual materials can create the desired audience reaction and engagement. 

(Note: Each of the Lightning Talks was excellent. I could talk about all of them but I wanted to pick the ones that got me all aflutter. Check out the video archive on the Pres4Lib wiki to see all of them. I highly recommend it.)

The lesson here is to marry the presentation media with your style in a way that compliments each aspect the most. In mentioning marriage, the rule of thumb attributed to bridal parties might actually explain it best: the bridesmaids (your accompanying media) should look good, but not as good as the bride (you). The right kind and amount of visual and auditory aids should intertwine and support your talking points. Every additional material should move the audience closer to the goal of your talk, whether it is to inform, train, or otherwise. It should also compliment the presenter’s style and manner which is (as stated above) uniquely their own. It is the symbiotic relationship between person and media that makes the presentation a memorable full sensory experience.

I am very thankful to the Pres4Lib organizers for putting this together. And I am certainly looking forward to another shot at Battledecks next year. I plan on improving upon my previous effort.

As to the title of the this post, I offer you the following convoluted anecdote:

I have been reading the book “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life” by Len Fisher. In one of the chapters, he talks about a game theory scenario called The Volunteer’s Dilemma. This situation entails a group that is facing a problem in which an action needs to be taken but the person who volunteers to take the action opens themselves up to a greater risk of a negative effect. However, if no one takes the action, the entire group suffers. In the book, Len describes a herd of wildebeest crossing the plains of Africa. To reach new grazing lands to sustain the herd, they have to cross rivers. These rivers are the domain of very hungry and territorial crocodiles. If the herd doesn’t cross the river, they will surely die of starvation from the lack of adequate food. So, the first arrivals stand on the edge of the river until the pressure behind them builds to a point where a wildebeest “volunteers” (pushed or of own volition) to start crossing the river. This brave beast risks being the crocodile’s first meal, but the rest of herd can now cross at a (relatively) reduced risk.

I told that background story so I could tell you this story as it relates to Pres4Lib.

So, in the first Bird of a Feather session in the morning, the topic of discussion was called Getting Started. We’ve talked about “hooks” (grabbing the audience’s attention), about introducing any elephants in the room as an icebreaker, and had turned the topic to transitions (moving between different talking points and formats). Amy Kearns had asked about what to do when you ask a question of the audience and no one answers. Someone said that you just leave the question out there till the audience actually answers when I rather “brightly” said to the group.

“Oh! That sounds just like The Volunteer’s Dilemma!”

After explaining what this was, I related the presentation situation to the dilemma. The audience is the herd of wildebeest, the crocodiles represent the feeling of being self conscience, and the river is the question posed by the presenter. While it is true that the presenter can get the audience off the hook by answering the question, they have all lost a chance to open up a dialogue with the presenter. A fear of being wrong or awkward or other possible negative outcomes in answering in front of a group is “the self conscious crocodile”, the thing preventing people from freely answering the question. No one wants to get eaten by that dinosaur throwback and so they stand at the proverbial river bank shifting in place. Even so, with a taciturn audience, you could even mention this scenario as a secondary icebreaker and a means to further elicit an answer.

So, there is no need to think of your audience naked. Unless, of course, the thought of a room full of naked wildebeests is somewhat soothing.

Advocacy. Tasty tasty social media based library advocacy.

Advocacy through social media has just gotten a bit cooler.

There is a newly formed Facebook group for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry’s Flavor. But what do libraries and Ben & Jerry’s have to do with each other?

In these economic conditions, the role of the library is becoming more important in the lives of its patrons. Diminished incomes have stopped people from buying books, newspapers, magazines, music and movies as well as dropping services like home internet. They are turning to the library for the media and materials that they would have normally bought for themselves in the past. With employers moving their hiring applications to their websites and most job searches move online, the ability for people to be able to access the internet increases in importance. In reaction to this, libraries have added job hunting, resume writing, and interview materials, classes, and programs. On top of this, we are helping people everyday navigate this new age of information. But we are still struggling to maintain services in the face of stagnant or slashed state, county, and municipal budgets.

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream has a long history for corporate advocacy for different causes. From their mission statement, they seek to conduct business in a socially responsible and environmentally sensible way. Over the years, they’ve created flavors to raise awareness for poverty, global warming, water preservation, family farmers, disadvantaged children, and world peace. Their activism extends to their employees who volunteer their time for community projects. Plus, they make some pretty tasty ice cream.

Sounds like a perfect match!

Join the group, spread the word, and let’s make the library an even cooler place to be!

Cross posted at LISNews.org

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.