There are no simple answers

A friend and colleague has recently written a piece on how technology alone will not ‘fix’ education.

She writes

No matter how many laptops we put in classrooms or wi-fi networks we set up, if kids are in a district where schools are closing and class time is reduced due to budget shortfalls, learning is going to suffer. No matter how innovative the online textbook system, if kids are in classrooms where the teacher has received no training or even advanced notice that a new system is going to be used, learning is going to suffer. Regardless of how promising the innovation, it will suffer from the lack of technical support in a majority of districts or increasingly higher demands on teachers without appropriate increases in training and support.

We have talked about this problem many times over the years, having both been involved in well-meaning organizations that thought there was a perfect new technology to solve x or y problem (mostly education) or that everything we need to educate the world is already on the web, we just need to gather it together in one place (the curation solution).

I’ve often made a similar argument about libraries. New technologies have huge potential for impact, but to be meaningful, they need to be combined with a deep understanding of the how we learn and how we create. New technologies also often need time to find their ultimate purpose. The telephone was not invented for personal communication, but has revolutionized it. The television was at some point supposed to revolutionize learning, but has instead changed our social lives and even the design of our houses. New technologies will undoubtedly change our libraries, but we have to be prepared for it to be in ways that we don’t expect.

And for those who are still looking for simple answers:




In Praise of Silence, Part 2

The Pew Research Center recently released their report on Library Services in the Digital Age. In the ‘What people think is important for libraries to offer’ section a staggering 95% of respondents felt it was either very important (76%) or somewhat important (19%) for libraries to offer ‘Quiet study space.’

But is this really staggering? As I said a year ago, quiet spaces are getting fewer and farther between. And they are getting more expensive and more ‘elite.’ As we work so hard to surmount the ‘digital divide’ we are creating another divide — between chaos and calm; or between those who will have access to everything and those that have the priveledge of disconnecting.

A recent article in also points out how little coverage there has been on this topic. Not even Pew mentioned in their summary how highly-rated the service of silence was to library users.


Library as Laboratory and the Library Ecosystem

On Tuesday 13 November 2012, in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford a special meeting of Congregation was held on the topic of ‘The libraries and their future’. Congregation is the governing body of the University. It is made up of over 3,500 members of  staff (academic and administrative), and untimately has responsibility for all legislative matters as it is responsible for voting on policies proposed by the University Council. Only Oxford and Cambridge (that I know of) have this form of governance.

The meeting was very formal, intrinsically fascinating and very Oxford. The entire transcript of the meeting and a recording of the proceedings is available for download. It is well worth a read as it provides some really important insights into what faculty members (in Oxford at least) both think of, and would like to see, from their libraries.

Reviewing the transcript, I noticed there was only one person who referred to the library as the ‘laboratory for humanities scholars’. This is still a heavily used metaphor and I think still a relevant one. [From what I can tell, the first use of this metaphor was by Christopher Columbus Langdell, then dean of the Harvard Law School in his “Harvard Celebration Speech” (Law Quarterly Review Volume 3, 1887) marking the 250th anniversary of the founding of Harvard University. Langdell says, “…the library is the proper workshop of professors and students alike; that it is to us all that the laboratories of the university are to the chemists and physicists…” (p. 124).]

What stood out more at the meeting was how many people referred to the library ‘ecosystem’, which I think may be an even better description/metaphor moving forward. As Prof. Ian Walmsley noted in his closing remarks, ecosystems need care to survive. They can neither change to rapidly nor fail to change. They require diversity and diversity, for better or worse, creates complexity.


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In praise of silence

On my last visit to Manhattan I had a small revelation about the cost of quiet. There are thousands of bars and restaurants in New York, but if you want a quiet one—where you can have a conversation with a friend or be left alone with your martini and your thoughts—you are going to have to pay a lot for your drink. Only the high-end expensive restaurants seem to provide the possibility of calm. I find the same thing in London. Granted some of the hippest, most expensive restaurants are also deafeningly loud, but the quiet ones are almost exclusively the pricey ones.

I think that this is the only the beginning. As we start to understand the impact that technology and constantly being connected is having on our well being (cf, Does Technology Affect our Happiness), places of quiet and dis-connection are becoming more valuable and more expensive.

So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. (The Joy of Quiet)

Many will read this and see it as a call for more information literacy training. That is part of it – we need to teach people how to wade through all of this stuff that we are producing, but we also need to teach people how to leave all of the buzz behind and just think. At the risk of proliferating the image of the shushing librarian…this is why it is vital that our libraries remain quiet. Sure, put meeting rooms and group study rooms in the library–that is an important part of knowledge creation and innovation. But in the future we are going to need more and more quiet spaces to escape all of that as well. And our libraries will (hopefully) remain the last free (or at least affordable) place to disconnect and be quiet, to renew not just our intellect, but our lifelines.

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines. (Ibid.)

Ebooks, ebooks everywhere, nor a thing to read

With apologies to Coleridge, I wanted to take some time to summarize the flurry of news about ebooks, ibooks, etc. that happened at the beginning of the new year and talk a little bit about the impact on libraries.

Social Reading

Back in 2010, news started bubbling to the surface that seemed to imply that now that we had all of these ebooks, we needed something to do with them. So several projects for ‘social reading’ were launched.

In 2010, Bob Stein created a ‘taxonomy of social reading’ that is well worth reading.

Several project/companies have emerged in this space, but I have yet to see one take off and become heavily used.

Libraries Struggle with How to Handle EBooks

The Washington Post reported at the beginning of this year about the struggle between libraries and publishers to come up with a business model to make both sides happy. This doesn’t seem to be moving forward, unfortunately.

Because publishers are failing to come up with a business model, they are being replaced—Amazon and Apple are the new publishers.  (Although some disagree with the latter). There is also arguments on both sides about the rise and fall of self publishing. Are we in a self-publishing bubble?

Either way, if the ‘traditional’ publishers are being replaced because they can’t keep up with new delivery systems and formats, who is taking the place of the libraries? Are the social reading initiatives aiming to fulfill some of the role traditionally held by public libraries?

I can’t help but think that both sides — libraries and publishers are both missing a trick. Both are still trying to fit the old things into the new form.

Marshall McLuhan 1960 from bob stein on Vimeo.



Will 2012 be the year of crowdsourcing in libraries?

I started to compile a list of library news from 2011 and was sidetracked into thinking about the various crowdsourcing projects that have come about over the last couple of years.

Galaxy Zoo was first released in 2007 and while they expected it to take two years to classify the million galaxies, within 24 hours they were receiving 70,000 classifications an hour. The Galaxy Zoo project has now branched out into the Zooniverse collection of crowdsourcing projects – currently 11 of them – mostly astronomy focused but now entering into climate change, biology, and the humanities. We will be launching our own Zooniverse project – What’s the Score at the Bodleian? – this year.

As libraries and archives saw the power of crowdsourcing they jumped on board and began releasing some projects of their own. The most well known of these from the .edu/.ac world is probably Transcribe Bentham. Released in April of 2010 with the goal of transcribing a portion of Jeremy Bentham’s papers, they are now 42% of the way into the 5,580 manuscripts uploaded to the website. Like a lot of digital projects, though, Transcribe Bentham only had funding for one year and they are now searching for was to remain sustainable.

Nonetheless, crowdsourcing has spread in the library world and in 2011 a number of new projects have been launched. NYPL’s What’s on the Menu? has been quite popular, and with Digital Koot, the National Library of Finland ‘gamified’ the type of newspaper OCR correction that the National Library of Australia started in 2009. And just this month the US National Archives released their Citizen’s Archivist Dashboard for transcribing and tagging digitized archives.

I think we are likely to see even more library-based crowdsourcing projects in 2012, but I would like to have an honest conversation about the successes and failures of these endeavors. I think we need to discuss what we really want out of these projects and whether they are worth the money. By some accounts (although I can’t find the citation now), UCL could have hired a team to transcribe Bentham’s manuscripts and for all of the money they have spent to date they would be further along. However, if their goal is not just to transcribe Bentham’s papers, but to build a community of people around the archive—to create amateur and young Bentham scholars, then that is a different kind of success.

Looking around the world of crowdsourcing (both online and offline) I think there are some important lessons that libraries need to pay attention to in order to engage users in these projects.

1. Stop being obsessed with context. Library/archive projects tend to provide users with an artifact—a manuscript or page—and ask people to transcribe it. But this can feel a lot like work. Some of the most successful projects I have seen, namely DigitalKoot and reCAPTCHA do just the opposite – they provide snippets or words for people to transcribe. This allows the tasks to be completed completely out of context, for the former as a game and the latter to prove that you are human. If the goal of the project is quantity of transcribed materials (rather than community building or engagement) I think this is important.

2. Reward your users. It doesn’t take much. I think the Zooniverse projects do this nicely. They tell you right up front how your work will be of help, and as the participants of Old Weather transcribe shipping logs they progress up the ranks of the ship to Captain. You can also loose your Captain status if you don’t stay active. In the Original Galaxy Zoo project, each of the contributors was also named as a co-author in one of the resulting papers and active participants continue to be occasionally listed as co-authors. One of the rewards from the NYPL’s menu project is that the data is made available to the public, and they encourage its re-use.

3. It’s ok to fail. As I mentioned above, there are reasons beyond just getting the data to do a crowdsourcing project. And sometimes you will get things you would never expect. In 2010 the GAP company famously released a new logo that was universally hated. They quickly tried to turn lemons into lemonade by ‘crowdsourcing’ the design of a new logo. You just can’t buy the sort of publicity this whole discussion generated. Chiquita banana let the public both design and vote on their stickers. This may not have sold more bananas, but my guess is that it built community around their product.

4. Remember that crowdsourcing is a form of engagement, and it can happen offline as well as on. The Tate Britain does this very well with their ‘Your Collection’ pamphlets (which are also online but I first saw them in the museum and so think of the analogue version.) They have pamphlets scattered around the Tate that provide interesting paths through the collections (e.g., the ‘rainy day’ collection or the ‘I’ve just split up’ collection). They then have blank pamphlets that allow you to build and name your own collection. Lovely, simple, and analogue.

So either 2012 will be the year of crowdsourcing in libraries and archives, or it won’t. If we are lucky, we will get some well-described and/or transcribed library collections. But if we are successful, we will engage more users than we did last year and build communities around some of our library collections.

On Grace and Elegance (RIP Steve Jobs)

The passing of Steve Jobs has really touched a lot of people and left me, like many, wondering what it is about Apple’s products that is unique. I would argue that it is their grace. His genius was not in figuring out what technologies people want but in delivering them with grace and elegance. Near the end of his life, I think that he embodied the same.

Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech

Gene Smith, librarian

Gene Smith revolutionized his discipline–Tibetan Studies–twice. If we’re honest with ourselves most people can’t say that they’ve done it once, let alone twice.

In the 1960’s Smith–a Mormon from Utah–was charged by his teacher, exiled monk Deshung Rinpoche with helping to save the written Tibetan corpus. He spent nearly 20 years collecting often rare and valuable texts from exiled lamas and scholars. By 1985 he had a collection of over 12,000 volumes.

It’s easy to romanticize and even mythologize Smith’s life and activities (and in fact a movie is being made about his life What interests me the most, though, is Smith’s work as a librarian. From 1968 to 1985, he worked the New Delhi office of the Library of Congress. It was here that Smith found a creative way of distributing the texts he was amassing — Public Law 480 (PL 480, aka the Food for Peace programme). The programme allowed him to purchase Tibetan books and to print copies which were then shipped to research institutions in the United States. By building great research collections in the West, Leonard van der Kuijp, professor of Tibetan studies at Harvard, credits Smith with having “single-handedly put Tibetan studies on the map…

Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, the abbot of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery (center) receiving a Mac Mini computer containing eight thousand texts from Gene Smith (right). He lifts it to his head and recites a blessing. (©Lunchbox Communications)

In 2008, I had the great fortune of spending an afternoon with Gene, interviewing him about why he decided to digitize his collections through the TBRC. His motives were clear–he was passionate about facilitating access to these texts, not just collecting them. His means were sometimes controversial: in order to sustain the program, he relies on selling to subscriptions to those who can afford it, in order to give the digital texts to those who can’t.

Digitization is pretty common these days in most academic libraries, and so I asked him why he didn’t continue to work with a library when he wanted to digitize the collection. The most surprising moment of the interview (and in fact of all my fieldwork) came when Gene said, rather emphatically, that he simply could not be doing what he was doing in an academic library. This statement gave me a lot to think about. In fact, it formed the central question for my work for the next several years. How could someone whose work seems so perfectly aligned with the core activities of librarianship, feel that he couldn’t get this work done in a library.