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I’m starting to think that compassion may be a learned skill rather than an innate trait. I know we like to think of all the best qualities of human beings as something we have intrinsically but society squeezes them out of us, but I suspect compassion may be more complicated.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just live in societies that make it harder to keep at the forefront.

What is it they say? That our societies have grown too big, and that’s why urban dwellers have all these ticks to help them avoid noticing that the herd they’re running in is far, far too large to fully comprehend? Ignoring strangers on the bus, keeping our eyes averted while walking on the sidewalk? Is the absence of compassion a result of all that?

I don’t know. But it seems to me that it’s work to remember that every human being has struggles of their own that you may not be able to read on their bodies and faces (if you bothered to read their bodies or their faces, that is). And I’ve decided that compassion is something I’m going to spend more time deliberately drawing out of myself. I shall consider it constantly.

I say all this because I’m increasingly aware of the absence of compassion we tend to show students. We so often seem to assume the worst of them. I don’t really know why; we were all students ourselves once. Why is it so easy for us to forget what it was like? Or are we actually contemptuous of our younger selves, the ones trying to sneak a better grade in any way possible, rejoicing at every holiday and snow day, sleeping through morning lectures and drinking into the wee hours? Is it a form of self-flagellation to assume that all students are lazy and need to be controlled through our obscure and pointless policies?

Or is it just that we get so used to answering the same questions over and over, or dealing with bad behaviour every day, that we assume everyone is stupid and/or malicious? Relentless familiarity? Do we see faces we classify as “students” so often that they all start to look the same, and become some giant annoying creature who just never learns? I guess that’s where my call for compassion comes in.

But then I’m an optimistic sort, I don’t tend to imagine the worst of people. Quite the opposite, I think everyone is basically good and wants to do the right thing. (I suppose this may not actually be true, but I struggle to completely accept that.) I don’t usually deal with the same questions every day, but when I do, I generally remember that this is the first time this particular person has asked that question. When I will try to remember is that if they’re asking this question at the very last possible minute, there may be for very good reasons for that which are none of my business.

So my word of the day/week/year is compassion. And I will go on trying to hone my skills in that department.

Project Management for Librarians: Risk Assessment

Project Management for Librarians: Risk Assessment

[Download the risk assessment document template]


Risk assessment is clearly an art I haven’t entirely mastered yet, but even at my novice stage it’s helpful, primarily because it gets you thinking about what you’ll do in the case of an imminent failure. It puts the possibility of failure on the table, and forces you to talk it over with your supervisor, your stakeholders, and your team. Even when you don’t anticipate the particular risk you end up facing, you’ve probably brainstormed enough mitigating and contingent actions that it won’t take you long to construct a new one on the fly. It also introduces the tools and language to kill your project when it’s limping toward failure, since you have built in all the parachute points at an early stage.

I had to shelve the project the model risk assessment in the video was written for in the face of a risk I did not anticipate. It’s still not a failure; it’s just shelved until the risk event is past. The team were grateful when I raised the issue and suggested shelving it, because it saved everyone the pain of a public flop. No hard feelings! These things happen! We will regroup at a later date!

Download this tool and use it; make a better video than I did!

Project Management for Librarians: Scope

Project Management for Librarians: Scope

[Download the Scope Document Template]


In sum: a scope document can be your best friend. It’s a great touchstone for your first big meeting with your team and your stakeholders, because there is no document that helps clarify a project more than a scope doc does. I’ve had the experience a number of times now where a project really comes together in that first meeting poring over the scope doc and deciding what stays and what goes. It prompts a lot of conversation and encourages a lot of clarity. When you all agree on the content of your scope doc, you’ve got a good grounding to move forward with your project, and a good sense of what will define success and failure.

Of course, a scope doc changes along the way at first. More about that a bit later.

Project Management for Librarians: Charter

Project Management for Librarians: Charter

[Download the blank Charter document template]


In sum: you create a charter document when you first have the idea for something. It’s a very simple document that you fill out and hand to the person who authorizes the time/resources you need for your project. I never use these documents instead of talking to people though; I talk to everyone before I write the document, and also when I pass it off. The document is like a cheatsheet about the idea, the paper version of the conversation you’re having. But a charter document is open and simple enough that you aren’t locking yourself into any one solution yet. It’s just saying: hey, here’s a problem I want to address. If you’re me and incapable of keeping any bright ideas to yourself, you are probably saying way more about what you want to do with this project in person than you are in paper. But at least you’re all acknowledging that yes, you’re going to spend some time thinking about this thing, and we all agree that it’s a good idea.

If you’re concerned about being called on your use of your time, you can modify this document to include a signature area. You can get someone to physically sign off on you investigating a project. At the very very start, this is the document they would be signing off on.

A charter document is a one-off. It just gets you started on the project. The end project might look very very different than the charter, but that’s okay. We can address any changes in the project in future documents, like the scope and alternatives. But more on that later.

Project Management for Librarians Series

Project Management for Librarians Series

At Internet Librarian in Monterey, Calfornia, I attended some sessions about failure. I’m a fan of sharing failures, as difficult as they are to share, so I looked forward to these. What I learned from attending them is that librarians in certain industries (academic and public, I suspect) aren’t really equipped with methods and processes to address and manage failure (or success, really). I know this particularly well because I didn’t have those methods and processes in my first couple of years either, but I was lucky enough to get a supervisor who does. She has been coaching me on project management principles ever since. I’m not exactly an expert, especially since my brain doesn’t naturally work for extended planning and organization, but I’ve worked very hard to grasp these ideas and make sense of them in my context, so I’m at least comfortable speaking about them at length.

Last night I joined the Libpunk collective’s podcast to chat about failure, and was reminded once again how desperately librarians need this process. Honestly, I sleep so much better working this way. So I’ve decided to share what I know.

To do this, I’m going to share a series of documents, along with some explanations of how to use them.

You may be wondering why the whole of my obsession with project management appears to focus on documents. I found this odd at first too. But think of it this way: the documents are a concrete version of verbal communication. Once these ideas and warnings are in paper, they are visible to everyone involved in your project and are much harder to forget or ignore. I’ve have argued that all (or at least most) failures in libraries are in fact communication failures. Documents like these are a way of taking your communication and putting it in paper form. It’s an externalized form of communication that you can refer back to and get agreement on.

The documents are also a great way to force your brain to think about your project in very concrete terms (probably the hardest part for me). They ask you to fit elements of your project in boxes that will help you keep the whole project in line, and will help you understand when and if your project is heading toward failure. They also provide the language that you need to get agreement on critical issues and deadlines, which really helps when you need to call the whole thing off or sing a victory hymn. I find it also makes the whole process official and solid, so even if a project doesn’t make it out of the early planning stages, it’s still an awesome thing that you did that ought to fit on your activity report and demonstrates great learning.

So while I’m going to talk a lot about documents as part of communicating this process, I’m really just talking about effective, consistent and constant communication.

And I say this as a person who is not naturally a planner or organizer. Working this way, with a very specific framework, has allowed me to be way more creative, oddly enough. It roots my process and lets me go off on wild tangents without burning up any of the key goal posts around me. Having a place where my creativity and crazy ideas fit and make sense (and are totally useful!) is extremely freeing.

First I will share and describe each of the documents. Then I will explain the stages you go through with them to move your project from glimmer of an idea to completion.


2515 Futurology: The Role of the Library in 500 years (according to me)

2515 Futurology: The Role of the Library in 500 years (according to me)

I’ve recently returned from Internet Librarian in Monterey, where one of the evening sessions had a series of prominent thinkers in librarianship considering what libraries will look like in 2515. Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to predict the future 5 years out let alone 500 years. 500 years is actually impossible. But I want to give it a try anyway.

500 years ago, the printing press was still revolutionizing Europe; we’re 7 years from the 500th anniversary of the year Martin Luther nailed his theses to the chapel door in Wittenberg, which started the first ideological revolution fueled by the European printing press. If we imagine we are at just such a point, where a piece of technology is going to start a cascade that impacts every element of our society and culture, it’s clear just how impossible it is to predict 500 years into the future. The people complaining about information overload because of the volume of new books being produced were probably not anticipating the internet. But I think we can nod in their direction and remember that the moral crises of the moment will probably sound ridiculous in 500 years.

The key part I felt was missing from the predictions at Internet Librarian was the absence of the impact of the inevitable environmental and economic apocalypse that would likely occur between then and now. In 500 years we will have no more fossil fuels and will probably have exhausted all the key precious metals currently employed in high-tech manufacturing, so a computing culture based on better plastics and faster chips is probably unlikely. In a world where the fossil fuel economy crashes, there are two options: either we swap out fossil fuels for something cheaper and better and life continues on largely the same way (seems unlikely, given how little progress anyone has made thus far), or lifestyles change radically.

In the crash, I would expect that we largely cease to travel nearly as much as we currently do. There is a movement now toward rehabilitating large suburban areas built based on a car culture into walkable, livable spaces. If we lose access to cheap fossil fuels, and then lose fossil fuel altogether, I would expect that movement to grow and fundamentally alter the way we relate to our neighbourhoods and regions. Perhaps our highways would turn into long strips of farms. More walking, more biking, better public transit, more focus on local communities and getting what you need within a smaller radius. I would expect (relatively) cheap and accessible air travel to end, at least temporarily. Potentially, the costs of personal communication technology might rise as well. Remember: no more easy plastics. Our current disposable computing culture is based on cheap, easy plastic. Presumably computing devices could be made from recycled materials, but I would expect the cost of the devices to rise in any case. Would this create a second digital divide?

Of course, if we go through any length of time fighting over the remaining fossil fuels, there will be bloodshed. I would expect key civilizations to fall. I don’t imagine the world 500 years from now would be dominated by the English and the Americans. England would probably be mostly if not entirely underwater, as would large swaths of the United States. Potentially, the west’s focus on desktop/laptop computing would make it less agile. Europe, Africa and Asia are far better placed with their mobile technologies. Most of Africa skipped the hardwired internet infrastructure and went straight to wireless mobile; does that make them better suited when the crash inevitably comes and our hardwired infrastructure fails? Along with a shift in the dominant global cultures will come new metaphors and means of making sense of the world. This will also alter the way we think about and use technologies, and libraries.

Our increasing resistance to antibiotics, not to mention the rise of nonsensical distrust of vaccinations in the western world, will likely mean the return of certain terrible illnesses. In the next 500 years, I would expect to see first world countries contend with diseases long thought cured, managed or gone. We are a culture obsessed with cleanliness to such a level that we have encouraged a number of autoimmune disorders that I expect will only get worse. Doubtless we will discover a way to create stronger antibiotics, but I think the turn in that tide will come when we return to a more symbiotic relationship with our internal parasites and stop thinking of ourselves as so set apart from the natural world. I probably don’t need to mention our frankly terrible food culture and heartless animal/fish farming. Hopefully the radical drop in our populations due to illness, war, famine and infection will allow us the space to rethink how we manage our food resources.

In spite all this devastation in the picture, I expect it will all be history in 500 years. 500 years is a pretty long time for humans, so I would expect that we’d found a way to work through it in that time, primarily through altered expectations, cultural shift, and technological advances.

If this is the backdrop, where do libraries fit in? Clearly, a changed focus on the local over the global, or neighbourhoods over suburbs, means the library becomes, as it once was, a staple in the community. What are they offering? Is it books? It might be. Paper books are a more renewable resource than the technology that supports ebooks, certainly. I don’t have any doubt that the book (the novel, let’s say, even the monograph) will still be around as a concept, regardless of its form. We like long form content, we have always liked long form content. I would expect to see books get a lot longer, too. 1000 page books might be the norm, easily. If you look around you’ll see precious few thin books on shelves at the bookstore. Word processing has made it easier to write really long books and still edit and share them prior to publication. I expect our interfaces will only get easier and easier to use, resulting in longer and longer novels. Human minds seem to be nourished on stories; that’s been true for longer than 500 years (more like 3000, identifiably), so I don’t imagine our need for stories will vanish. Maybe the need will only increase, particularly because I think a turn will come where the values built into the humanities will rise.

That sounds crazy, because right now no one wants to fund the humanities anymore. The sciences are where its at, right? The more seamless our technologies get, the more story and metaphor will become the crucial factor in adoption and use. That’s something I learned more about at Internet Librarian, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time as well. You can have all the technology in the world, but until the imaginative capacity is there to alter your culture to account for its use, you don’t progress. Technology can be a kind of driver, but you need story-inclined minds to make sense of it enough for the culture to absorb it in a rational way. That tendency is getting more obvious now, but it will probably become even more clear. Thought-leaders (sense-makers) can have technical skills, of course, in the same way that dancers need to know how to walk. In 500 years, I would expect that we live in a more deliberately metaphorical and ideas-driven world. This science-focus is, in my opinion, a short-term blip spurred on by the long industrial revolution. It will have tapered off long before we reach 2515. That doesn’t mean that technological innovation stops; only that its dominance as the only thing worth funding will end.

If we see internet content creation as a base, I would expect in 500 years that everyone creates and consumes content. Everyone is an artist, a novelist, a creator of some kind. As the need for specific technical skills vanishes, more and more people can enter into artistic realms. For instance: it takes tremendous knowledge, skill and finances to build, say, a bridge or a building. With virtual tools, I can build a building or a bridge any time I want, using building blocks and expanses of virtual space. For someone with no skills in architecture, I can still spend hours creating buildings.

But the virtual is different, right? I would expect that divide to crumble, especially once we determine how to manage a sustainable computing culture. Without the plastics, maybe we would be forced to take the next step and leave these clunky interfaces altogether. At IL someone said we would be curators of screens; either we provide them or people bring their own. I think in 500 years there will be no more screens. There will only be content.

I don’t know how this happens. It’s hard to imagine and it sounds impossible, but put yourself in Gutenberg’s shoes or in Martin Luther’s and try to imagine the 21st century. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but I feel sure we probably will. I doubt it’s an implant, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we use our biological knowledge to create some sort of virus or bacteria that will turn our optical/sensory nervous system into a dumb terminal for the scads of data we create. I would expect our future to be overlaid not just with the kinds of information we now have access to, but with whole other levels of creation piled into the physical space itself. What we think of as “information overload” volumes of data will be laughably quaint. You can see the beginnings of how this would happen with collaborative geotagging and GPS and crowdsourcing. I think what we have now is the thinnest base level of where it will go.

There will be no more sitting at a desk in front of a computer. The idea of a computer will be something kids go to museums to understand. In the distant future, I would expect what we think of as the internet to be just part of the walls, the furniture, ourselves. It informs us instantly all the time. We communicate with it by shifting ourselves through the space, not by forcing ourselves into a place to use a set of tools. I imagine we would return to physical objects (like a telephone handset or a typewriter) as cues and indicators; touch this, hold it this way, and the system responds. The difference between software and physical objects becomes invisible; demonstrated intent is the way you launch an application. We have touchscreens; the future would have gestures writ large.

I would expect the publishing industry to collapse. There is too much creation, independent novels and artists, to sustain it in its present form. We don’t need a publishing industry to publish and distribute, so these would cease to be key elements of the industry. However, in spite of the fact that our cities are coated with graffiti, we still go to art galleries; the publishing industry will die but be reborn, potentially as a refining service, or as a referral and recommendation service. With all creation and all information so easy to generate and find, the value third parties like “publishers” can bring is with advice, support, networks, and recommendation. These are crucial and probably lucrative roles. It would be the publishing industry, but with the actual publishing part excised. It will probably become one of the strongest industries, employing a far larger proportion of the population than it does currently.

And this brings us back to libraries. If I’m right and we ensure a series of technological and economic blows, the library may indeed become the only place where most people can access information and communication tools. We would need to expand our roles as access providers, expanding our computing services rather than restricting them. If computers suddenly become insanely expensive, public libraries in particular will need to fill a need we haven’t had to fill in the west since the 80s and early 90s. If it goes the other way and computing becomes insanely cheap, possibly with biodegradable computers, we might do the opposite; reduce computing facilities, but provide tons of free and fast access with a focus on supporting user generated content. Maybe we provide tools for creation, storage of digital media, in general support the voices of our patrons on the world stage.

By the time we adjust to a world with different energy sources and radically different economic models, with massive user-generated content of all kinds, search is long dead; context is what people need. Libraries, then, can act as filters. In some ways I think libraries can become totally ubiquitous civic services, providing support to neighbourhoods by filtering content based on where their patrons are at any given time. Rather than typing a search term, you would shift your physical self into a space that indicates the content you’re looking for. For instance: in a university, you might go to the history department to begin a “search” for history material. You might move toward a particular office to get closer to certain kinds of information, and that information is constantly refined by the person behind that door. Better yet, we take that universe of information and put it in a room where your shifting motion helps flip between topics and refine your process. Once again the university library is a global playhouse granting patrons access to the entire world of information from the start to the present. We often talk about the value of place, the library as a place. I think, built well, the library as place would become the entryway to all information in one room. It would remain a valuable location not because its the only place to access that information, but because it’s the easiest way to do so.

Keyword searches are the mode of the day currently; but they aren’t easy, and with increasing forms of content, they will become rapidly unwieldy. This isn’t how people think, no matter how popular google is; everyone still prefers to get recommendations from people they know and trust than to perform a cold call search. Right now classification systems are antiquated and increasingly not useful; I would expect their usefulness to return in the future because where you go in the “stacks” would filter the content you see, would make it resolve into its context. Merge your catalogue with your physical space; we already do this. This is exactly what the library was meant to be; a single repository of all information, ordered in a way that makes sense. In this world, that single repository would be dynamic, fundamentally cloud-based and terminal-free. Book-free, probably. Virtual but highly physical.

Libraries would retain their role, not because it’s the only place to find the content, but its the only way it appears in a rational, browseable, clear way, with exactly the context each individual patron needs. A librarian would be a refiner of context rather than a content selector. We would create roles for our patrons the way we do for usability study, refine those roles based on a huge series of factors, and help individuals to create the library in the image they need, based on who they are today, and help that role to shift and change along with the patron. And we help take information about others (anonymized, or not; there is prestige in being a good filter) and apply it in interesting ways. We would be a constantly-shifting collection of contexts, switchable, alterable, reorderable on the fly. There would be much more information, created by many more people; but it would be so easy to sift through it that the idea of searching would almost unthinkable. Searching would again become a highly-prized skill, because most people will not be required to do it. At that point, librarians can make a bid win back search and be the go-to people when someone needs to actually search for something rather than just find it through thoughtful context. Reference desks would be beehives of activity. (Though: possibly bees would be extinct. Pity, that.)

In the days when long-distance travel becomes prohibitively expensive, we might make ourselves communication hubs, creating spaces where our patrons can interact with others at a distance but still have the feeling that they are sharing physical space. Maybe we will transform our spaces into conference areas. In academic context, this make perfect sense: we would become local venues for every academic conference of interest to our faculty and students. We would foster community both locally and globally. Our faculty would probably attend more conferences than ever before, interact more, share more. We would archive not just the papers but the experience of the conference for others to revisit. Hopefully we would take over the “publishing” side of academic communication altogether, fostering academic sharing in more ways than one. Once long-distance travel becomes easy again, many might prefer the library as a communication hub, and attending virtually might be the new old-school way to interact with a conference. They would become far more frequent. Conference papers might overtake journal articles, but we would present each of them as though they are individual items in our collection, with peer review and context (and a thousand other variables) modifying how prominent they are.

At Internet Librarian, most people seem to despair a bit at the idea of a long-term future for the library. I’m really not in that camp, obviously. I believe that the traditional role of the library is still very much up for grabs in the future, more so than this blip of time we’re currently occupying. But as long as librarians think of libraries primarily as information storehouses rather than context-generators, and as themselves as “human search engines” rather personal, thoughtful and tech-savvy guides through a sea of available information, we will struggle to remain relevant. If we consider our true mission, underneath the formats and methods, I think we’ll find that the world always needs libraries. We just need to keep altering ourselves so that we keep meeting the same needs as the world changes.

iPhone: week one

iPhone: week one

For all my tech-geekery, I’ve never had a smartphone. There hasn’t been a really good reason for this, aside from a vague attempt at fiscal responsibility and the reality that I spend my life essentially in one of two wifi zones (home, work). I figured I didn’t really need a truly mobile device that connected to the internet. Couldn’t I have my (short) commute time away from it? It just never seemed that important. I’ve been following the developments, and while never anti-smartphone, I’ve just never been a good phone person. (At least: not since I was 16 and on the phone constantly.) There are so many other interesting ways to communicate: talking on on the phone just seemed like the least imaginative. I don’t have a home phone, and my work voicemail is something I have to remind myself to check.

The internet is, largely, my passion in life: communication, productivity, creative thinking with internet tech, that’s what I do for a living. It’s also something I enjoy in my off-time; I’m genuinely interested in web innovation, and my explorations and thinking don’t stop when I leave the office. I understand the app revolution, and while I’m on the side that believes the apps are probably only temporarily in power and the mobile web will probably take over, I’m intrigued by the apps and the interesting things developers and users are doing with them. So you’d think I’d have been on this smartphone thing ages ago, but no.

In spite of my obvious interest in all things online, it wouldn’t be fair to classify my web experiences as addictive or compulsive. I’m absolutely okay with pulling the plug at pretty much any time. I can take a long road trip without the internet, and I don’t miss it. I love to read, I love to talk to people, I love to sit and think and muse. Contrary to the “information overload” debate (which I think is code for “I procrastinate and the internet makes it too easy”), I don’t find my connection to the internet either overwhelming or demanding. It’s a give and take. If I don’t want to pay attention, I don’t. When I want it to entertain me, or confuse me, or engage me and make me think in new ways, it does. So while I thought the smartphone thing was pretty cool and clearly an intriguing and useful development, I didn’t actually have one of my own.

Until last week, that is. I finally got on the bandwagon. And I’ve been diving in head first. No holds barred, no panic about the 3G useage. Not in the first week, at least. I gave myself permission to be gluttonous with it, to roll around in it and see how it felt.

The only times prior to now that I thought I’d like to have a smartphone is when I’m out to dinner. Not because my dining companions have been sub par, but because I have an ongoing fascination with food history. I like to know how the composition on my plate came to be, and what historical events I can credit for it. This is easy with things like potatoes and tomatoes (“New World”, obviously), but garlic, carrots (did you know medieval Europeans ate not the orange root, but only the green tops of carrots?), bean sprouts, onions, cows, pigs, chickens, saffron, pepper, etc. It’s really the only time I’ve felt the lack of the internet. I want to look up some historical details at very odd times. I figured a smartphone would be helpful for that. (I can’t really carry around a comprehensive food history book everywhere I go, can I.) Filling specific information needs: in spite of my own certainty that search is basically dead, in the back of my head I figured this is how I would use a smartphone. I was not right.

But it’s been different than I expected. First, and most obvious, I suddenly always know when I have email. I bet people hate that. Email is my second least favourite means of communication, so putting it at the front of the line has mixed results. As I said, I’m reasonably good at not feeling pressure to look at anything when I don’t want to, but the thing pings when I get new email, and it makes me curious. But even in the first week, I don’t look every time. I didn’t stop my conversation with my mother when I heard it ping. I did, however, answer a question from an instructor while on the Go train back home on Saturday. If you want to be distracted, access to the internet via smartphone will certainly act as a decent distraction.

My best experience with it so far as been a trip to my home town, Guelph. It’s early October, and suddenly this week autumn appeared in full colour. If you’ve never experienced a southern Ontario fall, you’re missing something great. The cool temperatures at night mixed with the remaining warm days turns out a crazy quilt of colour across the landscape. It’s only when there’s enough cold that you get the firey reds and deep oranges. We’re in a banner year here, and on the bus on the way to Guelph I saw this awe-inspiring riot of colour out the window. Purple brush along the side of the road, a scintillating blue sky, red, orange, yellow and green leaves on the trees; this is the kind of thing that makes me happy to be living. The kind of thing I want to share, just out of the sheer unbelievability of it. It’s incredibly ephemeral, these fall colours, so capturing them and sharing them has additional appeal.

So this phone I had in my hand, it has a camera. This was actually my first experience using it. And I discovered quite by accident that I could snap a picture and then post it to twitter with a matter of a few swipes of a finger. So there I was, first on the bus, then walking down Gordon St. in Guelph, 22 degree weather, the sun warm on my skin, and while I was away from home, away from my computer, I was sharing my delight in the beauty around me, capturing it and sharing it effortlessly. It was one of those days when I felt like I could hardly believe the intensity of what I was seeing, but I was able to share it, record it, all as part of the experience. I’m not a great photographer: mostly I leave the camera alone and just experience my life without documenting it. But sometimes, documenting it is part of the experience, adds to it. So, in my 30 minute walk from the University of Guelph and my sister’s house, I shared the colours around me and saw the responses from my friends and colleagues far and wide. I was no less on the street, no less engaged. But I was also interacting with the world via the internet. I loved it. I was in two places at once. I had voices in my head. I was connected in two places. It reminded me of Snow Crash.

I’m sure this is no revelation for anyone who’s already had a smartphone all this time, so mea culpa. I was aware of the sort of ambient/ubiquitous computing, I just hadn’t had the chance to experiment with it myself yet, to see what it really feels like. I think the interface is still a bit clunky, too limiting, but the touch screen is getting closer to effortless. What’s wonderful about it is its seamlessness; picture to twitter, responses, all so easy to see and engage with. And engaging online isn’t even really drawing me away from my real life experience. It’s just a part of it. I’m not thinking about cables or connections or keyboards. Technology is getting to be close to invisible, just present and available.

As I sat on the train, reading fiction online, leaving comments, checking out links on Twitter, reading educause research, answering work email, I realized that I would never be bored again.

I read someone’s response to the iPad a few months ago where he returned his iPad for this very reason: the threat of never feeling bored again. Boredom as critical experience, necessary experience. I can understand that, but of course it’s all in the decisions that you opt to make. We are invariably drawn to the shininess of instant gratification via the internet, of course. But even that can get boring, eventually. You do reach a point where you’ve read it all for the moment, and you’ll have to wait for more to appear in the little niche of reading that you do. Does that force you to branch out, find more and more interesting things? That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Does it allow you to avoid reflecting, being with yourself in a place?

One of the very early criticisms directed at the iPad was that it was a device for consumers, on which information is merely consumed, not created. That jarred me, as it felt untrue and frankly a bit elitist. Creation doesn’t just mean writing software or hacks. Creation can be writing, or drawing, or singing, or sharing reactions and thoughts. but I see now with both the iPhone and the iPad, that this criticism is both true and false. It’s true that these devices make it very easy to consume content created by others; it’s easier to browse and read than it is to write, for instance. The keyboard is pretty great, but it’s not as easy to use as the one attached to my laptop. But what I choose to browse/read/consume is still my choice; just because it’s on an iPad doesn’t mean that it’s all commercial content, not while the web is as relatively free and easy to access as it is. Most of my reading on these devices is not sponsored and not created by mainstream media. I’m not just reading the New York Times. I’m reading blogs and archives, primarily. And why are we so anti “consumer”? We need to consume the creations of others as part of a healthy dialogue, after all; there is a level of pop consumption that’s a good thing. Neither of these devices is as simple as a TV or a radio where there is a clear creator and a clear consumer. I am also a creator on these devices, a sharer of experiences, of thoughts and ideas. My experience walking down the street in Guelph on a beautiful day was a case in point; I was clearly a creator, sharing what I saw, engaging with others. That’s not a passive experience. Sitting on the train reading someone’s review of a movie, or a fictional take an on old idea; I’m consuming as well. In places where I couldn’t do so before.

It feels like there are fewer spaces in my life. The level of connection I’m currently experiencing seems to make my days blend together into one long back-and-forth with any number of people. Is this less downtime? Downtime transformed into time spent in this otherworld of communication and information? Am I reflecting less?

I started with a bang, so I guess it remains to be seen how much I keep at it. Will it get old? Will I return to my former habits, with less time testing the limits of my devices? It remains to be seen.

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

My acquisition of an iPad resulted in me reading my first ever ebook (Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel) followed promptly by my second (Holly Black’s White Cat). Having learned that I enjoy reading ebooks via ibooks, I discovered the collection of free ebooks available on the platform via project Gutenberg. So, I finally read through a few Arthur Conan Doyle books, some Daniel Defoe, and others. Now, reading books written prior to the 20th century isn’t exactly a novel experience for me. My first degree is in English. I took Renaissance literature, I’ve read Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress and Canterbury Tales and Pride and Prejudice and all those books you read when you do a degree in English. I discovered my love of Daniel Defoe reading Roxana and Moll Flanders. I know very well how many great books are out there.

But this time around, reading them next to modern books on a hypermodern platform, I’m noticing something odd about them. They seem slightly flat. That seems unfair, why would these books feel flat? I thought maybe it had something to do with current expectations of character building. I thought, maybe vie just become accustomed to reaching a particular level of intimacy with a character that wasn’t the fashion before now. But then unpacking that a bit more, I thought it was actually just what mascarades as the illusion of intimacy with a character.

In a 19th century novel, we are fairly intimately enmeshed in the lives of the protagonist. We follow them everywhere. We know most of everything that they do. But somehow that didn’t feel like enough to me. Following them around, hearing all their conversations, accompanying them to meals, it just doesn’t feel like enough.

So then I started to think about all the current fiction I’ve been reading, and what’s going on in the, that’s so different.

For a start, current novels stick to a structure for more tightly. I read a lot of YA, fantasy and science fiction, and these genres all adhere to a pretty strict narrative structure. A protagonist with a mission, a story with a powerful beginning, lots of action in the middle to hold your attention, enemies that have at least some life breathed into them, a crashing, satisfying conclusion. I can’t read anything written in the last 10 years without being hyperaware of now word processing has shaped it. Easy editing, storage, searching, sharing, the relative ease of writing incredible volume that still hangs together as a complete story arc; I don’t imagine any of this would have been so easy and routine without access to a simple word processor. I think about J.R.R. Tolkien and how there’s just no way the detour with Tom Bombadil would have made it past an editor today. And I know he edited a lot, but I don’t think The Lord Of The Rings would have been quite the same book if J.R.R. Had had access to a MacBook and a copy of Scrivener. For nor, it would have been even longer.

But it isn’t only that. I also realized, reading Conan Doyle and Cassie Clare at roughly the same time, that we have very few stories without a Sixth Sense sort of twist to them. I’m hard pressed to think of a single story vie read in the past 10 years that doesn’t have some kind of ancient twist in the latter middle or end of the story. Not just a twist, see, actually a secret hidden in the past of the character that makes everything they’ve done all along suddenly appear in a different light. It not enough anymore to just have a plot; I also need this huge, revealing understory to cast a pall over everything else. I’m used to getting two stories for every story I read. And somehow this dual story surprise is what makes the characters feel more open to me. We don’t just go through a series of events together, which I think has largely been enough to make a good, immersive novel until relatively recently. I also expect to be let into a whole other internal drama, with secrets, betrayals, alternate identities, and shifts so massive there is no going back.

In Harry Potter, we have the relatively simple story of the boy who is a wizard, off to wizarding school; but of course there is the understory about his dead parents and all of their choices and relationships, all of which is in the past but coexists and underscores the progression of the narrative. Couldn’t we have done without it? Would it have seemed even thinner if it had just been a story about the here and now, like Holmes and Watson? Moriarty isn’t revealed to be Sherlock Holmes’ long lost twin brother, tangled in feelings of rejection and jealousy of his brother’s familial support and ability to avoid turning to the dark side. Nor is Moriarty Holmes’ father.

I think my expectation of this deeper explanation, revealed fairly late into a narrative but hinted at along the way, is what makes stories without them feel thin, more surface. I have no idea really why Sauron is so evil in The Lord of the Rings. He just is. Just like Moriarty. Defoe’s Roxana is a sexy criminal, for no apparent reason other than that is simply who she is. Without the big reveal and subsequent rethinking of the entire sequence of events toward the end of the story, I feel as though there’s a sizable chunk of the story left to the imagination. No wonder everyone questions Watson’s devotion to the confirmed bachelor Holmes; we’re used to the other shoe eventually dropping, and if it doesn’t, we’re left to find it and reveal it ourselves.

I love these stories with the twists in them. They’re extremely satisfying. I’ve just never noticed until now that the twists have the effect of simulating a new level of intimacy with the characters and the story, perhaps because I the reader learn something alongside the protagonist. We become confidants rather than merely storyteller and audience. But I think it is illusion, and a powerful one. Can’t an old school narrative filled with descriptions of actions and decisions tell you just as much about a character as learning an old family secret? By all rights, shouldn’t it tell us more?

The Portal Speaks: Our Latest Stop Motion/Animated Feature

The Portal Speaks: Our Latest Stop Motion/Animated Feature

September is always a cruel month when you provide support to courseware at a University. A ton of new users, a ton more use of the system, people doing cooler and more difficult things, systems that are more interactive than ever…it all means things tend to slow down. This September has not been our worst by any means, but everyone is used to systems working perfectly and being perfectly fast, so Lauren and I created this:


It was a great experiment in mixing stop motion with animation. The whole thing took about two hours from start to finish. We shot it with the lights off in my office. Easy! Our key message was this: everyone, and I mean everyone, is doing their best on this. All your issues are being heard and strategies are in place. Since we created and posted this, new hardware was bought and installed. I fear people imagine that those working deep in the systems don’t know/care/worry about how things work for students and instructors. We know exactly how much they do care, so we really wanted to communicate that.

Plus: making videos is fun.

iPad reflections

iPad reflections

I am writing this post from my new iPad. I’ve been waiting for this moment for some time…I have had high hopes. Here are the pros and the cons.

It’s remarkably easy to use. Any interface works well only if the symbols in use resonate deeply with the user. Apple has the advantage of many years of symbol generation in it’s favour. I’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit without having to turn to a manual.

Others have commented on how awesome it feels to interact with the web using your fingers instead of a mouse; the immediacy of it, the intimacy…it’s like meeting the web in the flesh for the first time. Intimacy like that with places and content is extremely powerful. I can’t see being satisfied with less having experienced it.

Typing is okay. It autocorrects a lot, but it has to. Most of the time it’s right. It pit all your apostrophes and capitals in, which should clean up a great dal of grammar on the Internet.

Mail is stunning. I don’t even know what makes it so beautiful, but it is. So is the calendar. I get a little shiver imaging that my activities will be documented in such an elegant way. So far I’m only viewing,so I can’t speak to it’s functionality. Apple appears to be appealing to the secret aesthete in us; the style and slickness makes you feel like you’re transcending some kind of hitherto unknown class boundary. I admire and appreciate their attempt to surround me with prettiness.

It never once occurred to me that the ipad’s web browser (safari) would struggle with google docs. Google docs is my word processor of choice, and since it’s a app, I presumed I would have no trouble at all composing docs on an iPad. But no: I can view but not edit google docs on the iPad. I’d really like to know why. Does docs rely on flash? I was under the impression that it didn’t. Is it’s functionality deliberately disabled, and by which party? My guess is that apple is responsible, not google, but this like like picking one parent over another. I’ve been a Mac user since 1997 and I become more of a google fan by the day. Why apple makes the products I’d rather spend the day with my fingers on, google makes the functionality I need. So I hope safari gets it’s act together. In the meantime I’m making do with a very slick app called Office2 HD, which is beautiful. But I believe that the future is in the mobile web, not locked away in apps. If google comes up with a rival device that ties seamlessly into it’s apps package, I may be lured away from apple products.

iBooks. The reading interface is quite lovely, but I’ve never seem a more poorly organized collection of fiction. Books for young adults are listed in the children’s section. Beyond basic author, title and rough genre, I can’t dig though the collection in any comfortable or interesting way. And the bookshelf display is far too simple for the eventual cluttered collection any book loving reader will accumulate. It looks very much slapped together with no serious thought about categorizing fiction.

Lack of flash? Doesn’t bother me in the slightest. YouTube looks fantastic embedded on a page or otherwise.

Thus I find myself partly pleased and impressed, and partly unexpectedly disappointed.

Orientation Video, 2010

Orientation Video, 2010

I’ve been making Blackboard orientation videos for first year students for several years now. The idea is actually to provide a bit of a service to the faculty; many instructors aren’t comfortable providing any “intro” for their students, so the first idea was to box up the sort of information I would give if I went into a class to help ease first year students into the system. The concept has clearly evolved since those early days.

Here’s our orientation video for this term, made using the stop motion function on our (relatively) new HD camera. All props to Lauren Di Monte for that fantastic idea! Complete with captions, thanks to our awesome student employee, Lorena. Go team Blackboard!

If you watch the right hand corner, you can see our mobile shelving doing its thing a couple of times.


This video took about five hours to create, from start to finish. We did two takes; the first one took about 45 minutes and resulted in about a minute of video. The second took an hour and resulted in this minute and a half. We were entranced by how white chalk glowed on the chalkboard in the light of the projector.

Blackboard on a blackboard, eh? Aren’t we clever!

How Training without Lecturing breaks the fourth wall

How Training without Lecturing breaks the fourth wall

There is, I have discovered, an imaginary wall between the teacher and the taught, and you will feel it no more strongly than when you opt not to lecture.

What I have learned in the last five years of teaching faculty how to use courseware is that my grand ideas sound really good on paper, and sound good to the ears of chairs, administrators, and even instructors themselves, but they rarely work out as planned. My grand ideas have been these: don’t waste time with fake “training” courses, encourage instructors to use the time we’ve booked to actually build their own courses, with help on hand. If asked, any instructor will tell you that they have more important things to do than sit in a lab and listen to some instructional technologist or (in my case) librarian go on at great length about best practices or feedback we’ve heard from students. They have a deadline, and it’s usually something like tomorrow or the next day, to get this course ready and online. They are often annoyed that they system doesn’t work the way they want it to/hope it will/expect it will, and have exactly 12 seconds of attention to spare. This is why I thought my grand ideas would work out: I’m not going to ask you to sit and listen to me for an hour before you go home and build your course alone. I say: forget the first part, let’s jump to the second, but do it more efficiently. You work on your course: I’ll answer your questions as required. We can learn from each other’s questions. We’ll all walk away having accomplished something.

It never worked. First off, the labs where these training/work sessions happen are built like classrooms, with a podium and a screen and desks that usually face the front. The room itself tells everyone what they should be doing, and it’s not what they want to do or what I hope they will do. Second, no one’s ever ready. We do the training a week or two before classes start, and 9 times out of 10 the syllabus is still in progress, the documents are all over the instructor’s home computer (not in the lab with us), TAs haven’t been assigned, assignments are still being sorted out. So I can book a room to get the work done, but the content is rarely with us. So what happens instead is I (or one of my esteemed colleagues) gets in front of the room and lectures. We lecture about courseware. We point out where the tools are, we walk through the clicks. Here’s how you do it, guys. We pepper the lecture with experience, feedback from students, ideas we’ve seen work well, and those that don’t work so well. We end up serving up exactly what everyone would tell us they don’t want.

So this year, we decided to throw the whole process out and start again. As with any educational enterprise, we had to sit and think about where the value in our training lies. While I can talk at great length about all the tools and how best to use them, my experience is that little if any of my grand words sink in. Of course that’s how it works: the research clearly shows that training of this nature isn’t terribly effective, and I can vouch for that based on the phone calls I get. How often do we get questions from faculty where the answers were delivered in at training session several weeks (or days) prior? About 95% of the time, easily. It’s not that they’re not paying attention; our method just doesn’t work. They feel successful at the time; we have really good interactions with faculty, they clearly understand that we know what we’re talking about, they appreciate that it is our job to help them and we will pull out all the stops to do so. Everyone walks away happy. It’s just that our training objectives (giving instructors the tools to feel confident in creating an excellent, effective online course presence) are rarely met.

We distilled the positives of our current situation down to these: we need to continue to make sure instructors know that we’re friendly, helpful, and available for them on an on-going basis. If nothing else comes across, this has to. The thing we value the very most is our one-on-one discussions with instructors about their use of technology in their courses; we want to keep that. That interaction is valuable for both of us. Beyond that, everything was fair game.

So first, we decided to stop using classrooms to conduct training. The format is too familiar and too controlled. We don’t want everyone to take a seat and stick in it. We want them to move around. A moving body learns better than a stationary one. So no claiming seats. Next, we would not lecture. No lectures. The learning that was going to happen around us would be active, not passive. We’re not going to insert answers into your head. You’re going to have to forage for your answers.

We set up four zones in a room. At the front near the entrance we have a demonstration zone, with no seating, but one very large whiteboard, a projector, a wii remote, and a IR pen. In the demonstration zone you can use the IR pen to interact with a training shell. Here we demonstrate how tools are used, where to click, how to create elements, etc. based on the questions that are coming from faculty. It’s off-the-cuff and tailored to the instructor in front of us. The advantage of the large format is that other instructors see what’s being demonstrated from anywhere in the room and come forward to interact with it (and us) if they’re interested in the topic.

The second zone is simple a table. Here we encourage instructors with their own laptops to open them up and work with a familiar machine. On the table we have our “how to get your course into Blackboard in a hurry” document, which walks you through each of the basic, necessary steps.

The third zone is the Petting Zoo, which consists of six computers each displaying a different training course shell. They’re designed so that you can play with or look at the tool in action. If required there is a laptop sitting next to the computer with the student view of the same course shell, so you can set it up/create/add content as an instructor and then see what it looks like for a student. There are printed signs on each station advertising which tool is being displayed. On the desk at each station are post it notes with ideas on them for how and why to use this tool. Next to the monitor are printed sheets with step-by-step instructions on exactly how to set up and use this tool.

The fourth zone is simply two computers against the far wall where instructors can log into their own accounts and build their courses.

The basic plan was this: we knew everyone would be a bit uncomfortable at first, not knowing what to do, so we thought we’d start with a short lecturette about some concepts rather than tools. First: the idea that the “course menu” shouldn’t remain in its default state, but rather should be understood as a table of contents for the class. We’d give them a brief dissection of the main page, so they knew where the basic elements were. After that we’d introduce the areas to the instructors, including a brief introduction about each of the petting zoo stations. Point out the instruction sheets. Encourage them to ask their questions and check out whatever stations interest them. Then we let them go.

The very first time we did this, I shuddered a little about two beats after I stopped talking. You can feel the uncertainty, the tiny bit of panic, both on our side and theirs. They expect us to edutain them. There is a silence that needs to be filled, and it should be filled with my confident voice. They (and we) expect us to do the work, the song and dance, while they observe us. This is, at the heart of it, what “learning” looks like in higher ed, doesn’t it? We are so familiar with this set up that taking it away causes real insecurity for everyone involved. But within about four minutes we had faculty playing with tools at the petting zoo, getting questions answered at the demonstration area, and talking to each other at the workstations and around the table. Rather than spend all my time going through the basic rigmarole, I was answering specific questions and brainstorming creative ways to encourage student participation. How to get students to comment on each other’s blogs, which tool to pick for a specific task, how best to tackle groups within large classes. Rather than reciting the content of our tip sheets and how-to documents, we got to spend time using our imaginations and experience. It was exhilarating.

Not only that: most of the instructors stayed longer than the booked time, took more printed paper than usual, and actually (gasp) worked on their courses. I couldn’t believe it. When we give everyone their own computer to work on, no one wants to build their own courses. I think perhaps the fact that we spend most of the time lecturing has the effect of us claiming all the air in the room. When we stop, and force everyone to become an active participant in the training, there’s more autonomy to go around. Everyone seems to take charge of their situations a little more. When instructors have to choose their spot rather than having one essentially assigned, they seem far more willing to get to work. I felt like I did more, even though I was talking to the crowd so much less.

And all those basic questions? The paper does the talking. I don’t have to worry about forgetting to mention how to make your course available, or how to upload a document. There’s a simple set of instructions for that. People with experience and imagination are far more valuable sharing that rather than the basic how-tos.

Every time we run one of these training sessions, and we’ve done five of them so far, it starts out with the same tension; everyone in the room looks at us, a little nervous, wondering what they heck we expect from them. With the librarians, they all stood in an orderly row.

“I know this is uncomfortable at first,” I said as we started. “When we don’t lecture, it breaks the fourth wall.”

“There is no fourth wall,” one of the librarians protested, clearly uncomfortable with being put in this situation. (I can always count on librarians to voice what few others are willing to.)

I looked up at them, in a line, literally forming a wall themselves. “Yeah,” I said. “There really is.”

Within a few minutes, they were all hard at work, papers in hand, discussions on-going. The demonstration area was busy. All the petting zoo stations were occupied, mostly with a pair looking at the tools and discussing them. It’s not the trainers and the trainees anymore. It’s just us, together, learning.

Screencasting Tools

Screencasting Tools


My plan, for July, is to set up a place where we can all share the cool software, web apps, ideas and tricks that we think the rest of the world should know about via screencast. That way we have a great big searchable index of all the cool things available to us on the internet. In order to get there, first I need to share some easy ways to make a screencast. Hence the video above.

Admitedly, I’m currently addicted to screencasts. I’ve never been a big fan of them, I must admit, but these tools are so easy to use, and I can get more across in a screencast. I love text, but sometimes it’s not the best medium. And since I found all these super easy screencasting tools…there’s just no excuse not to try.

I picked four tools for this introduction: Screenjelly, Screenr, Screentoaster, and Screencast-o-matic. They all have their pros and cons, but they’re all dead easy to use. Give one of them a try, let me know how it goes.

Fanfiction as Creative Commons

Fanfiction as Creative Commons

She seems to be under the impression that everyone who writes fanfiction wants to be just like her (i.e. a successful published writer named Diana Gabaldon), but because they are just not as dedicated/original/awesome as she is, the best they can do it try to write exactly like her. With her characters and everything. (link)

I’ve been skimming through the great fanfiction debacle. For those not following along, I’ll summarize: Diana Gabaldon, fantasy fiction writer, discovered that a group of fanfiction writers were auctioning off custom-written fanfiction based on her books, with the proceeds going toward the hospital bill of an uninsured breast cancer patient. When Diana Gabaldon caught wind of this situation, she did not like it one little bit. She posted about her opinions of fanfiction in general (not something she’s avoided airing before: she has previously stated that fanfiction is like someone selling your children into white slavery.) She struck a nerve by describing fanfiction as immoral and illegal, and then went on to wax poetic with analogies for fanfiction like “You can’t break into somebody’s house, even if you don’t mean to steal anything. You can’t camp in someone’s backyard without permission, even if you aren’t raising a marijuana crop back there.” And more inflammatory yet: “I wouldn’t like people writing sex fantasies for public consumption about me or members of my family—why would I be all right with them doing it to the intimate creations of my imagination and personality?” The posts themselves, there were three of them in total which garnered a significant number of comments in reaction, have been deleted from Gabaldon’s blog, but have been reproduced for posterity here. Obviously, these words generated a lot of hurt feelings, and many others, fanfiction readers, writers, and published authors alike have weighed in.

What I find so interesting about the whole mess is the basic misunderstanding, summed up so succinctly by one of the commenters on the fandom wank post quoted above: Diana Gabaldon appears to believe that the purpose of writing fanfiction is mimic writers. And perhaps, if understood from this perspective, her reaction makes sense.

In the mid 90s, when I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I did a research project on an oddity that I noticed in journalistic sources during the 19th century; women in factories wearing outfits that would have cost them their entire yearly wage to buy. I wondered what would possess a woman of limited means to buy such an dress, and uncovered a whole paranoid segment of literature where the upper classes were unrelentingly scornful of the working classes who sought to “pass” as above their station. There was a great deal of worrying about this possibility, and certainty that such “greasy silk” would never really convince anyone. Once I started to dig into the working class side, another motive appearedl it wasn’t limited to fancy clothes, either. Furniture and general household objects, all sorts of things, including fake dinners, complete with the rattling of silverware even if they had no food, to keep up appearances. And then I understood; while the upper classes saw their underlings trying to “pass”, the working classes were actually communicating amongst themselves. They were signaling to each other that they were doing okay, doing great, doing better than their neighbours, no matter what their actual circumstances. The upper classes were there only as a metaphor, as the providers of a language of symbols they could use to communicate, not with the upper classes themselves, but with each other.

This is pretty much exactly the same thing that’s going on in fan communities, including the scornful, wealthy observers. While authors see amateurs stealing their work and possibly trying to masquerade as one of them (usually very poorly, laughably poorly, and the wealthy, educated, comfortable elite has no issues announcing that fact loudly and proudly), fan writers are really only communicating within their own group, to each other. What those on the outside of these communities fail to understand is that any one work of fanfiction rarely stands alone. It is part of a larger discussion about who these characters could be, what these places are like, and working through the issues of the moment within the community itself. This is why it’s often possible to track the development of a fandom version of a character regardless of who the writer is. Fandom tropes come and go, objects, jokes, ideas, themes come into style, and within the culture of the fan community. It’s up to each writer to tackle these things in new and creative ways, to contribute to the narrative behind these characters, these ideas: that’s the challenge, that’s the fun of it. It’s not about you, Diana Gabaldon, privileged writer with a comfortable living and no concept of fan community. It’s about us.

Of course, all fan communities are rooted in the original text (whether that text is in fact text, or video, or any other media); that text is the language that everyone understands. It’s the commons from which everyone feeds. All creative work happens on top of that commons, and subtle differences between the canon action and the story presented carries a ton of meaning. These shared language, structure, place, and characters is what brings strangers together, gives them a common location from which to start.

This is exactly how biblical stories are thought to have developed. They would take a standard story that everyone knows (The garden-paradise, the tower of Babel, etc.), and embroider it in a particular way. The way you chose to embroider a known story is where all the politics and challenge is, and demonstrates your take on the story, your comment on the workings of the day. In the story of the garden that we understand as the standard one, Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden; in another, they walk out of their own accord. These are the decisions that tell you what the author means to say with his version story; are humans powerful or powerless? Are we here because we outsmarted God, or because we are being punished? Should we be proud or humble? The author is communicating something above and beyond the story itself, using the story elements as tools. If you don’t know the base story, you’ll miss the whole point, the meaning behind the differences. You’ll think it’s just a story.

Published writers unfamiliar with this kind of community will say, “go write your own story! Stay out of mine!” which displays a basic misunderstanding of the whole point of fan communities. If we were all writing our own, we wouldn’t have the shared language to work from. I couldn’t read your story and say, “hm, so you think there is the psychological basis to have character X go this way, well, that seems reasonable and I can see where you’re coming from, but it doesn’t resonate with me. I’m going to write something indicating the opposite, which is also reasonable and arguable, as you shall see.” The first writer will project one tiny element in one direction, and another will come along and build on that, pushing boundaries in another way. You can see characters in fandom as great big trees; starting with a trunk in the commons as part of the original work, then branching off as the community wrestles with him, pushing him in different directions. Camps form; some people see a character as essentially one way, and others see the opposite. People from the camps gather and further refine ideas together, with waves of creativity taking them off in new directions altogether from time to time. If everyone were writing their own story, there would only be a single branch. There wouldn’t be a whole community getting together and sorting out all the ways a given character might go, and writing each and every direction.

The original author is largely irrelevant to this entire process. S/he can step in and add some elements, which might make one faction feel triumphant in their “right” interpretation, but many more couldn’t care less. (Most slash fandoms, for example.) Interpretation of canon material springs from the canon material only; if the book leaves arguable room for a character to become a lawyer, or be gay, or be straight, or marry his best friend, then some part of the fandom will celebrate him in that way, no matter what the author says about it or what the author would prefer. Fandom is about the various interpretations of the collective, not the desires of the individual.

While many fanfiction writers want to be published authors one day, and in fact, many former fanfiction writers have indeed gone on to publish their own original work, the majority do not. This is where Gabaldon is so confused; most fanfiction writers write to participate in this larger community of interpretation and imagination, following not only her lead with her characters and her world, but the lead of all the fanfiction writers who had come before and laid the groundwork, establishing rationales and potentialities. A fandom once born tends to feed itself like a brushfire. Many fanfiction writers get into the culture not by reading the original text, but by reading fanfiction, which by its very nature begs the reader to answer it, to add their own layer, to contribute. Characters leave their original stories and live a million other lives through these multiple lenses, picked up and reconsidered, refashioned. No one’s trying to pretend to be Diana Gabaldon; no one thinks they’re version is a replacement for the original, anymore than a branch is a replacement for a trunk. Instead, fan communities face inward, sharing their stories, their ideas, their interpretations with other fans. The creative commons of culture, including books, movies, tv, video games, provides the base layer on which fandoms begin to create their scaffolds, which spawn more and more scaffolds on which to hang a new story every day.

Students and Twitter: Preliminaries

Students and Twitter: Preliminaries

I’m on the record of not being particularly in favour of using Twitter as a form of online reference, but that’s not to say that I’m not interested in seeing how students use Twitter. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite doing it, but I follow a Twitter search of people mentioning my place of work. I do this mostly out of curiosity, but I find that I can’t see us mentioned and not respond, or answer a question, or assure someone that I’ll pass on their complaint to the right person. I don’t consider it reference, and I do it on my own time, and I don’t think it’s something particularly sustainable or broad-spectrum, but it’s interesting nevertheless. I think of it as more of a zeitgeist, and a means of reminding myself why I do what I do. I let Twitter remind me about what’s important, and where my efforts should be directed. It’s humbling and grounding in that way.

So as I’ve been monitoring this one singular little Twitter search (mentions of my place of work), I’ve noticed some interesting trends. I’m starting to consider the possibility of being able to form an answer to the question “what do students use Twitter for?” Of course, these preliminary answers are biased, since they must contain a location in the tweet. But even so.

What I’ve seen so far falls into two broad categories: complaints, and shout outs. The complaints are things I expect; students who can’t find a place to sit, grumbling about wireless problems, outlets not working, complaints about workload, etc. I’ve seen exactly one tweet from a lecture, but I suspect there are more that I’m just not finding with my search term. In short: students appear to use Twitter as a way to vent about things when they’re stressed out. Since I find myself doing the same thing more often than I’d like, this doesn’t surprise me. It’s this behaviour that I think makes it worth my while to keep an eye on it. I saw a marked uptick in complaints once the exam period began last term. Twitter complaints may have more to do with the stress level of the student body than with specific issues, but it’s a nice reminder to be extra sympathetic at those times.

The shout outs: these are sort of fun. More often than not, the stuff that comes up on my search fits into this category. Students use Twitter to tell their friends where they are; it’s the foursquare use, even without the use of foursquare! They announce which part of the library they’re in, who they’re with, and what they’re working on. They shout out how many words they’ve written in their essays. This is really cool, and it would be neat to incorporate this kind of presence awareness status update with the course itself. It could certainly help students find classmates to study with. It could fit into some kind of meta courseware, nebulous social layer to the university.

At this point, I don’t think there are very many students at my campus using Twitter. I’m not sure there will ever be very many of them. But it provides an interesting view of student life.

Google Bingo

Google Bingo

As part of my job this year, I have taken on the task of delivering six emerging tech sessions for library staff between October and March, one a month. The purpose of these sessions nominally to introduce the staff to interesting applications or uses of applications on the web, and then talk about them. I want to make these sessions part of the solution rather than part of the problem; it’s really easy for people to get overwhelmed and intimidated by the galaxy of web 2.0 flash and dazzle, so I’m going out of my way to make these sessions easy and fun. The idea is to create some awareness, some understanding of the new directions the web is taking, and keep that knowledge in your back pocket as you go about the rest of your work day. The best stuff we do around here as training gets us together, playing with something, laughing, and generally having a good time. The series is called P.L.O.T.: Playing and Learning Online Together.

Today I delivered the fourth in the series: Google Bingo. I’ve been asked a lot of questions about this on Twitter, and since I can’t adequately describe it in 140 characters, I’ll describe it here.

The point of the session is to create some awareness about how to do advanced searching in a standard Google search bar, and to point out some neat additional features. Rather than stand up and lecture about it, I created 10 short (~1 minute) videos. Each video contains a pink square with a bingo word on it. I scattered these videos on workstations throughout the library. I created a map of these stations, and created a set of bingo cards containing the words from the videos. Instructions to staff are to follow their own path through the map as they see fit, with a friend or on their own, watch each video and look for the bingo word. Once they see the bingo word, they can cross it off on their bingo card and move on. Once they finished, we all met back up to talk about the experience.

This went extraordinarily well. Everyone reported learning things they hadn’t known about google services or google search, and they all had a good time wandering around through the library. Unfortunately I spent so much time thinking about the details of this (finding the computers to do this, making videos and maps and bingo cards, making sure computers didn’t fall asleep on me, etc.) that I failed to think AT ALL about how to spur discussion afterward. I do each session twice, so that’s a lesson learned. We had some fun reports about ways to use things or things people wished they’d known earlier, so it wasn’t a disaster, but I wish I had thought of offering a bit more at the end.

I’ll be posting all the videos tomorrow, if you’re curious. There’s far more I could have done, I just thought 10 was probably more than enough. I had no idea how long it would take everyone to get through it, but it only took about 30 minutes for everyone to make it all the way through, not the 45 minutes I had allotted. But they didn’t get bored, there was lots of discovery along the way, and I’ve gotten lots of great feedback.

So that’s Google Bingo!

Teaching Twitter

Teaching Twitter

Last Friday I did two sessions with library staff around Twitter. We’ve explored Twitter before, but it was two years ago, before the explosion of use. What I wanted to demonstrate was how people use Twitter in a conference setting. I find it so engaging to listen to something and process it through and with Twitter and my amazing collection of Twittering friends and professionals, I wanted to share that aspect of its use.

So I set up accounts for everyone, set them up on Seesmic for the autorefresh, and prepared a presentation. It was October 30th, so I presented about ghoulish things; ideas about death and dead bodies in early modern Europe, ideas that are precursors to zombies and vampires and all other kinds of post-dead creatures.

The first presentation went fine, but I felt very weird about the whole thing. I didn’t really know what the experience was like for them, and it was certainly a new and weird experience for them. Listening and responding is a difficult skill. I think this is one of the skills we don’t directly teach, but expect people to just know. It’s like reading a novel versus reading an academic article; you read them very differently. You go into it with a different mindset. Your goals are different. We got into a good conversation afterwards about the whys and wheretofores, which made me feel like I might have had a shot of getting my general point across. I got lots of nice feedback about it, but something felt off about it to me. It was more off-putting for me than I expected; as my supervisor Susan says, you have to lean into what makes you uncomfortable. I think I was experiencing the loss of control that a presenter/teacher usually feels that they have. I deliberately set it up so that I was only part of the experience in the room; they were also talking to each other, playing with it, experimenting. So by the end of the presentation I really only had half the story (if that).

I had set up tags on each computer with the username so that they would know who was saying what; too often they were spending time looking around for a name and I think that was distracting for them. We talked about how comments about sessions at conferences leads people to leave one session they’re not enjoying and move to one that sounds more interesting; about gaining background. the content presentation contained two falsehoods and ten truths; they were to determine which was which. Gut instincts appeared, agreements and disagreements, etc. So I think it worked, they did what it is we do at conferences, but I think it was uncomfortable all around.

People do not now how to allocate attention. We don’t train people to do that either. I can sort of understand that, as I guess I’ve had moments of struggling with that as well. I don’t find using Twitter and listening to a conference presentation to be multi-tasking, as they are about the same thing. I am merely giving digital voice to the thoughts in my head. For me, the response on Twitter rarely distracts me because I look down for response only in a pause or segue, or when the speaker is reiterating something I already understand. So they flow together well; one enriches the other. But that’s not a skill you’re born with. Both of those pieces (the speaker’s content, the @replies on Twitter or other conference goers opinions) need to be important enough to you to weigh them effectively. I often look at tweets from a conference when I really agree with something being said or a disagree dramatically; I want to see what the room thinks. I want to know if someone says, “that’s not true because…” For me that’s enriching the actual talk. It also emboldens me to pose a question or make a comment outloud, because I know I’m not the only person thinking it.

But that’s a carefully honed skill. It’s even a bit of a technological issue; lately I’ve been using seesmic for conference sessions, and I shut off my main timeline. I only look at direct replies and people posting using a conference hashtag. That helps keeps me focused solely on the matter at hand.

I don’t know that it’s necessarily a different skillset, really; just an old one on steroids. But I definitely found that that was the hardest part for the staff; how to listen to me and read tweets at the same time. (It’s NOT at the same time. That’s the trick.)

One of the most interesting things about the experience was the initial tweets by the participants. Some of them were things like “what do you mean by X?” or “Can you give us a definition of X?” Questions that should have been asked in person, at the time. I said from the start that I would not be following the tweets, but we’re so stuck in the idea of presenter/audience that the most obvious ways to start were merely to ask me questions. To me that showed how very much presentations are still about the presenter, with the audience meant to be only open and absorbing (and only from the presenter, not from each other). But as we proceeded, we got more responses that went farther than just me; to each other, to self, to the world.

Critical listening isn’t really a web 2.0 type skill, but it seems to me that maybe some tools require it. What people call multi-tasking, that IS a web 2.0 skill. And I think it’s far more varied and complex than people presume. It’s less about multi-tasking and more about identifying where you must pay attention and where you have a moment to catch a breath and jot down some ideas and reactions. It’s like learning to read for academics: you need to hear the introduction, you need to hear the opening of each section, and you need to pay attention to the first example in each section so that you understand it well. Then you can skim until you come to the concluding sentences, and the general conclusion. There are all kinds of little nooks and crannies in there where you can insert yourself and others.

But how do you teach that?

How to Create a Useful Social Network

How to Create a Useful Social Network

The last time I took a written test, I found myself very frustrated. I was sitting by myself in a room, answering questions on a sheet of paper, cut off from the large network of people I have digitally gathered around me over the years. The questions were testing my knowledge, not how I could put knowledge to use with the help of my extended social networks, which, practically, is how I would solve the problem. We are increasingly living in a world where our general understanding of things is more important than the particular details we can remember; we are using our brains more to make sketches of how things work and letting things like Google and our social networks fill in the blanks. Rather than spending time memorizing, we are jumping up the ladder and processing meaning and use. We expand our understanding knowing that the details will come via our always-on internet connections.

And this is why your social networks are important. You store information in your social networks, in the people you trust and communicate with. One of your friends reads a lot of historical novels; when you need to know the name of Henry VIII’s second wife, you can ask him. Or you can just Google it. You don’t need to store that name in your grey matter. You know you don’t need to; you know Henry VIII had a second wife. And that’s largely enough. Your friend would be happy to chat with you about English history, and when your friend stumbles into an area you’re interested in, you’re happy to chat with him about that. Reciprocal information-sharing. Two heads are better than one!

Step one in creating and using a social network is to acknowledge that it’s there. Asking a friend is something they let you do on TV game shows, but we often don’t see that knowledge network as real or valuable in our professional lives. But it’s probably the biggest asset we have. Your social network is your living library. You are part of other people’s living libraries. One of the best things you can do is to contribute to your network when they need your obscure knowledge and educated opinion. Engage with your network; provide ideas, thoughts, where required. Let your network shine by employing your knowledge. Then you can do the same.

I would comfortably posit that people at certain stages in their lives don’t have functionally useful networks. This might be because your network isn’t comfortable in its knowledge yet, or that knowledge isn’t yet solidified, or that the individuals in your network haven’t had a chance yet to set out on its own and develop knowledge and experience independent of their peers. If everyone in your network reads the same books, has similar summer jobs, and lives in the same town, that network isn’t going to be terribly useful to you. So branch out a bit: cultivate difference. Embrace it. Share your experiences. Become expert at something. It doesn’t have to be something lofty; it could be about gardening in a micoclimate, or knitting, or the history of a pop band, or the works of Margaret Atwood, or doing laundry. Become the go-to person. Everyone has expertise in something; if we pool all that expertise together, we get a really interesting resource that makes us all better people.

I’ve found that the deeper I dig into my passion (which is my work: internet apps in academia), the more obscure my knowledge and expertise gets. And so does that of my friends and my peers. So my networks have become really interesting and rich. I know that if I announce an opinion on a social network (facebook, twitter, my blog, etc.), I will surely get some diverse responses. Because the people I care about are coming from so many different spaces, I am enriched by interacting with them.

We largely categorize this kind of interaction as “social” and therefore “fun” and therefore “not work/serious”. But interacting with our networks is often the key that opens up whole new worlds for us. Our friends and our peers shape us, just as much as official, serious education and information do (likely far more). Let’s just acknowledge that while our friends are great and fun and we blow off steam with them and have fun with them, they are still valid sources of information and growth for us. Often when we’re working on a thorny problem, and have a few IM windows open, and Twitter, and Facebook, and are composing a blog post, we’re not just messing around on the internet. It might be fun, it might be building our friendships, it might look like we’re not paying proper attention, but in actual fact we are learning and processing and drawing on the collective knowledge of our networks. Even pure socializing, pure “not-work”, is part of building a real and useful social network. We are laying the groundwork to trust and share with our peers.

So: is it a bad thing to have facebook open at work? It can be if it’s distracting you from getting something done. I remember back at library school everyone would open up their IM clients and complain about the assignment we all had due. It can distract, it can act as the thing you do instead of doing what you need to do. Or, we can use these tools to build ourselves. We can use them as our interactive library. The thing itself isn’t the problem; it’s how we use it.

This is largely why I like to share what I’m thinking about or experiencing via social networks. I know that many of my friends and peers find it engaging and thought-provoking professionally, and I find the same when they share their work with me. I get to benefit from their learning when they share it. My professional development expands via sharing. When I attend an event about a subject I’m only passingly familiar with, I go to that event with the collective knowledge of my network, who correct my assumptions and add colour to the details I learn.

So embrace your social network. Cultivate it. add to it the people who challenge and inspire you. Let your network build you into the sort of person you want to be, and return the favour.

Laptops in the Classroom: A Dialogue

Laptops in the Classroom: A Dialogue

Below is an email exchange about laptops in the classroomI had recently with a friend of mine who teaches undergraduates in a university setting. I wanted to share it because I don’t know that we’re addressing these issues with faculty as effectively as we might; people like me, who work with collaborative applications and the internet, aren’t always invited into the spaces where these conversations occur. I’m aware that there is a vocal and adamant contingent of faculty at most if not all Canadian and American universities who are seriously distressed by the way students use laptops in class; I also know that there is another contingent, perhaps less powerful, perhaps less vocal, who are uncomfortable with the arguments in play and don’t necessarily want to ban laptops from class.

I’d like to engage in this conversation more often.

To: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: Lament for the iGeneration

You may have seen this, but I thought of you. I just CANNOT DECIDE if banning laptops in the classroom is the answer. It feels like a hostile, uncooperative, fatalistic, pessimistic move when laptops are only going to become MORE pervasive and part of our daily lives, not less. However, even my best students are often giggling away on IM’s instead of participating in a classroom discussion. I am really torn. I know some universities have tried to ‘unwire’ just lecture halls, but now students can use iPhones or other devices for WiFi, so it really is moot. However, even if they claim to just use their laptops for notetaking, how can they resist surfing? I couldn’t! I need to figure out how to simultaneously embrace the information age and keep my students tuned in at the same time!

From: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

It’s not exactly a zero sum game. I think we’ve been teaching the same way for so long, and isn’t really terribly effective. So students have been finding other ways to entertain themselves in lecture since…well, probably since the beginning. There are really good ways to use even things like IM as part of the experience…better to be active while listening than passive. So one way to deal with it is to accept that it’s there and use it. Twitter could be really good for that; collective note taking. (There’s a variety of collaborative note-taking applications out there now, too.) Another is to target the people who are using their computers a lot during class and get them to look things up and report back to you. The OED is aweesome for this. Yet another; send someone to the library’s website and ask whatever vital infomation questions you have ongoing on virtual reference. Get the library into your classroom in every possible way.

But in the end: it’s not your job to make sure they pay attention. You can only do your best. If they choose to check out, whether with IM, facebook, crossword puzzles, etc., that’s their decision. Teachers generally have a lot of control/power issues around “what’s done in my classroom”, and I understand that there’s a certain policing role involved. But a long as someone isn’t actively distracting others, I think they’ve made a personal decision that you just can’t hold yourself accountable for. They’re adults, after all.

That said: I’m someone who can’t attend a lecture without communicating what I’m hearing and thinking about it in some way while listening. If I have an internet connection, it will be via Twitter, IM, or both. Sometimes also IRC as well. If I don’t have an internet connection, I will whisper to the person next to me. I don’t know if people think I’m not paying attention, but I surely am. In fact, if I’m completely silent, I’m probably not paying attention or didn’t learn anything that interested or inspired me. Engaging in some way with others online is actually the best way for me to learn. It took a long time for me to figure that out!

Not that most undergrads are as engaged as I am. But they could be. And the internet connection in the room could be the thing that helps foster that engagement just as much as it could be the thing to distract from it.

To: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

Ah, I wish you could come into our faculty meetings! There is a huge faction now who literally view laptops as devil that are luring their otherwise interested students away from their brilliant and riveting lectures. They whine, “What are we going to dooooo about this laptop PROBLEM!” About half the department now has BANNED laptops in class. They stroll in, drop the briefcase and announce, “Hello class, laptops away, let’s start!” It’s ridiculous.

As for me, I have never commented on people using laptops during class, because I have NEVER had a situation in which someone was disruptive or bothered anyone! A lot of them take notes, others chat/facebook, etc. I would be thrilled if they tweeted ideas, but for some reason I think this is rare in my cohort here — I mentioned twitter once last term and asked for a show of hands and 1/80 used it. They seem more into facebook — they are still quite young (most 2nd year). I really do like the idea of asking someone to look up a definition or check a statistic for us — I think I may do this tonight! I also show video clips online and look up things on my own laptop during class, and we’re all in the same boat. I’m definitely looking into the collective notetaking — I think many of the students would be very interested in this, and i like the idea of a backbone of ideas flowing around and holding the class together during lecture! I also like the image of someone tweeting thoughts quietly instead of poking their neighbour — after all — engagement with the subject matter IS supposed to be the goal!

Perhaps soon I’ll try to allow a sort of alternate assignment were students could keep a little blog of thoughts built during lectures and earn some marks for that… though I wouldn’t want it to keep them from participating out loud! That’s the hardest part. For the ones who are genuinely engaging and tweeting thoughts, I need to get them to share them with the class!

So much to think about, but I think banning laptops is ridiculous and will not bring about instant engagement with the same ol’ lecture format… 🙂

Thanks so much for your thoughts!

From: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

It’s a huge sea change that involves bringing students into the process, and that’s really threatening. I understand that.

Yeah, people 30+ are into twitter, not really the 25 and under set. They don’t really get the idea of sharing your big ideas to make them better…yet. Things to remember: just because they don’t do it in their personal life doesn’t mean it can’t be something they can do for class. 🙂 In my dream world I have a twitter install with a school login I could use just for classes. I don’t care if the behaviour translates into regular twittering (I’m not really into pimping any particular applications), but it would be great if it helps them to learn to listen and read critically and actively.

Oh also: I find writing the ideas out makes me more likely to contribute them in person, especially if I’ve “tested” them online and gotten good response first. It’s kind of a confidence-builder.

Most undergrads don’t develop the kinds of online networks that are particularly interested in revelations from class, which is a tragedy. Would be a great project to help them build some.

I guess that might be my job. 😉

I really love the idea that it might be my job to help students create and nurture useful networks. That would be wicked.

Getting rid of Email

Getting rid of Email

I heard an episode of Spark on the radio just now talking about a fellow at IBM who opted out of email (sort of). Instead of replying to the constant stream of email, he uses appropriate social networks instead. I’m envious of this, because I really dislike email generally. I dislike it because of how horribly misused it is. I’ve talked about this many times before; I believe that because email has such a water-tight metaphor, it’s easy for people to understand, so they use it for everything under the sun. I know several people who use email as a to-do list; an unread email message tells them what they need to do today, and they mark it read once it’s done. I find this frustrating. Obviously we have needs that go beyond email, and because so many people cling to email, we’re all forced to do it. I think email easily makes up about 60-70% of my work, because almost everyone I work with wants a response to something via email. Face to face is informal; email is our new paper trail.

So I’m inspired to try and break out of the email prison. I have doubts, though; since most of the people requesting my attention via email are faculty, I’m not sure I can really disentangle myself. Why faculty email me: they have a question they wouldn’t want to make public for fear of it making them look stupid (their questions never make them look stupid, but it’s a common fear); They know how to use email, and know how to email me; they want to be helped personally, not through an FAQ or tutorial system (we already have plenty of those). So anything we put in place to replace email for the kind of courseware support we provide to faculty, it would have to be private, personal, and easy. Easier than email. That is a tall, tall order.

So maybe I can’t convert faculty yet. (Emphasis on the “yet”.) So maybe we start in-house. We send A LOT of email to each other; it’s the way we track issues, and since it archives everything, it would be hard to convince people do use something else. Nora says they are trying Yammer at Spark to try and move away from email. I’ve tried things like this before, and while there is some support among my colleagues for trying something new, I’m not sure this would cover it. It might, though. I’ll give a shot.

I don’t think there’s anything out there right now that will really fit the bill of what we’re trying to do, barring things like Lotus Notes, which would probably do the trick. (I’ve never used Lotus Notes, but I’ve heard good things.) The circumstances of our workplace would have to change radically for something beyond email to be completely feasible. The biggest advantage email has right now is that we give every one email address, and everyone knows how to send an email message. It’s something they use for everything else. I wish there were a simple, obvious answer to avoid the email but keep the archive. The only step up that’s functionally in use is a ticket system, but that uses email anyway.

Yeah, I wish I could get rid of email, at least the kind that I usually get. It would be nice if email were only replacing what we would otherwise put into a printed letter to a person rather than a phone call or a face to face visit.

Libraries and Social Media

Libraries and Social Media

I’m all for social media, don’t get me wrong. Very much. I’m a big fan of and an advocate for things like Twitter and blogs and IM and all that. I follow social media I use social media, I recommend social media to others. However.

I don’t really understand the libraries and social media stuff. I just haven’t seen any compelling reasons why libraries should be all up in the social media, other than it makes us look “with it”.

Here’s why I don’t get it: social media has a pretty broad reach geographically, and allows you to connect to people who use that particular brand of social media. So you can reach, say, lots of people who use Facebook or Twitter (or LinkedIn, or whatever), but there’s no particular reason to presume that those people are your users. Also: does anyone actually like it when companies/institutions use social media for marketing? I certainly don’t. The moment I feel like they’re trying to sell me something I stop following them. I like to follow individuals who have particular professional passions; not institutions who have a corporate agenda. I’m not interested in mixing PR in my authentic social media experiences.

Why do want in on social media so much?

If you can find a way to use social media to narrowcast to your users, even the ones who don’t use that brand of social media, then I think you have a winner. Using technology to engage within your physical/community space with your actual patrons rather than blindly broadcasting to the universe seems like a better use of time and resources. RSS is good this way: being able to push information into other digital spaces that serve your community is invaluable. Having a two-way interaction with your patrons in places other than the digital spaces owned by the library is great too. (From an academic library perspective: IM reference inside courseware, on departmental websites, etc.) Moving your digital presence around, being flexible enough to constantly update all sorts of spaces: useful. This is also where social media meets ubiquitous computing; you shouldn’t require your users to a) find you on their spare time, or b) be as tech savvy as you are. If you can move that same information and interactivity into the physical spaces where your patrons are using social media, that narrowcast is always worth the time and effort.

The research is increasingly showing that it’s people over 25 who make the best use of social media tools; if your audience is 35-45 with no fixed geographic location, Twitter might be a good tool for you. As I recall, there’s already plenty of evidence to suggest that no one wants to add institutions or libraries to their friends list on Facebook, unless they are offering a particularly useful service. People use Facebook to connect with their friends; I think it’s only librarians who are interested in libraries on Facebook. Study groups on Facebook? Sure! If the library were facilitating study groups, then sure, maybe that would serve a good purpose for people who are open to sharing their facebook profiles with their classmates, TAs and instructors. (Is this even a good idea? Are we being responsible when we encourage students to use their personal social media venues for professional/academic activities? Is there a level of information literacy we should be applying and teaching by our own use of social media as professionals? Should we be encouraging them to compromise their privacy in this way?)

Of course I say that as someone who IS using social media for her library, but not in the traditional sense. We’re going to be using Twitter for announcements and news of all varieties. But I’m not going to judge success or failure by how many people follow the account. In fact, as soon as the developer gives me an RSS parser that publishes Twitter feeds properly, the announcements won’t even indicate that they are coming from Twitter. They are designed to show up on the library’s website, which requires no Twitter id or knowledge of Twitter in the slightest, and on the library’s digital signage, which everyone can see the moment they walk into the building. We are not interested in broadcasting our news to the world, though if anyone wants to follow us that way, that’s fine. We will not be RTing, we will not be @replying. The real purpose is to narrowcast to the people who actually need to know what we’re saying in the simplest possible way, without requiring any participation in that particular application. During our last demo to the library staff (our website officially goes live on Monday), our associate chief librarian posted to the twitter account from his Blackberry, demonstrating how easy it will be for us to make quick announcements to the students in our building, even when not in front of a computer.

This is “social media”, but it’s sucked all the “social” of it. I’ve been a bit sheepish about this idea, mostly because I know that as someone who respects and participates in social media, I’m using the technology in ways that removes the interactivity. But this is the only way I can see it being genuinely useful, both to us and to our users. I don’t want to encourage them to use Twitter or Facebook or even AIM or Skype or anything else just because we’re using them. We need to get beyond the locked gardens and focus more on the quality of the communication rather than the branded playground its happening within.

I don’t know that I’ve seen social media yet that I think would make sense for institutions like libraries. Broadcast, yes: interactive…I just don’t know. You can have a Facebook page that everyone (including all the staff) will ignore; you can set up a Twitter account and encourage sharing and conversation with whatever patrons find you, but what happens if you actually get all you patrons asking you questions this way? It’s unsustainable. It’s largely invisible to the real workings of the library.

I’m looking for ways to integrate the business of the library into social media in a way that is inclusive, useful, and sustainable. Social media’s current focus is on individuals with passions communicating with other individuals with passions. It’s great; it’s just not always the right answer for libraries.

#librarydayinthelife: Tuesday

#librarydayinthelife: Tuesday

The Library day in the Life project collects the activities of library staff for a single week. The idea is to help prospective librarians and library staff get a sense of what life is like in particular roles. Here’s Tuesday’s activities:


  • Check email. Congratulate our Finance Librarian on his new baby girl.
  • Agree to meet with a faculty member re: blogging options for her class in the fall.
  • Start work on a controlled vocabulary of tags for our new library blogs.
  • Update colleagues on status: need to wait for carpet cleaners.


  • Still working on controlled vocabulary. Established conceptual categories, including audience, subjects, technology, special portfolios, and facilities & services.
  • Added tags to a Google doc.


  • Still modifying tags. Went through spreadsheet that lists all webpages set to be created on the new website; applied tags to each page, based on what content should appear there.
  • Shared Google doc with colleagues, with long description/introduction.
  • Realized that I had left my phone in my office. IMed colleague, got her to fish out my phone and check my messages. She called the carpet cleaner and arranged for him to meet me. Went and met the carpet cleaner, led him to my condo.


  • Kept working on tags; removed “audience” category as it just was not functional across multiple tags. Added (student) and (faculty) to a couple of categories instead.
  • Carpet cleaner blew a fuse. Ran across the street to the Canadian Tire to get new ones. Current fuses made by company called “FUSETRON”, with labels clearly printed in the late 60s. New fuses not nearly as awesome-looking.
  • Got email about status of current library construction. Immediately related it to website/digital signage content. Emailed facilities manager to ask him how he’d feel about making that kind of content public on the website/digital signage via Twitter. He’s intrigued. Set meeting with him for next week to talk it out.


  • Carpet cleaner still cleaning my carpets. This is what happens when you have a white carpet and a big fluffy orange cat.
  • Shared tags with one of the reference staff; got some feedback, brainstormed around how to manage “reference” as a service and the blogs. Separate, or really just another part of every other service? Reference is really a flexible service.
  • Rethinking the need for two different chat services that really are just going to go to the same person. Need to label the reference widget with a line that encourages students to use it to report noise problems in the building, perhaps? I still like the idea of having a special widget just for noise reports.


  • Looked over our test site (minus design) and the design screenshot. Discovered a few weird things.
  • Composed email to developer’s Project Manager (Barbara) about weird things (all minor). Sent it. Forgot to copy colleagues. Forwarded sent mail to colleagues.


  • Carpet Cleaner finished. Let him out of my condo (it’s all twisty.)
  • Got ready to go to work. Realized I have lost my keys (again).
  • Decided my time would be better spent working on my various documents rather than trying to find my keys and travelling to work.


  • Got corrected on one of the weird things on the test site; new development. Having two versions of one page based on audience. Only second time that’s happened on our website (so far). Sent the news (do nothing! It’s fine!) to Barbara.


  • Got a skype call from Barbara to talk about some design questions; got 5 minutes in and Barbara lost her connection.
  • Waited for her to come back.
  • Kept picking at tags. Feel confident that I’ve covered enough for the first round.


  • Barbara gets her internet connection back and calls me. We talk about various design issues, answers to questions we asked on Monday.
  • Made some executive decisions based one two things: 1) not spending more money, 2) getting the website finished sooner. Executive decisions all extremely minor with no huge impact on the user experience (library staff content creation experience or the student experience).
  • Questions about hosting; things I don’t know enough about.
  • I realize I’m going to miss Barbara when we’re done; I quite like her. She’s a Stargate Atlantis fan.


  • Write up details of my conversation with Barbara and send it to colleagues, including our graphic designer.
  • Scrounge dinner.
#librarydayinthelife: Monday

#librarydayinthelife: Monday

The Library day in the Life project collects the activities of library staff for a single week. The idea is to help prospective librarians and library staff get a sense of what life is like in particular roles. This is a rather strange and strangled week for me, but here goes Monday.


  • Check email.
  • Discussing new website design with our graphic designer. Ask for permission to include her in our skype meeting with dev.
  • Saw girl in the bathroom curling her hair with a curling iron while talking on her cellphone.
  • Got permission from everyone to include graphic designer on our call.


  • Got into an email discussion about how we intend to use Twitter on the library’s digital signage. Announced decision to set up a second Twitter account, tentatively UTMLtraffic. That way we’d have an announcements feed and a traffic feed; announcements for the Big Things that are happening on campus, and traffic feed to help students work out whether there’s room in the library for them to come study here.


  • Comparing meebo and digsby chat widgets. Leaning toward digsby, but meebo looks cleaner on a site.
  • Discussing meebo and digsby with FLC tech. If you need students to log into the service from multiple locations, web-based is preferable to client-based.
  • Got a phone call from campus staff asking for clarification about how Blackboard manages survey results. Lots of confusion about a note on the website that makes it look like something changed in the upgrade when actually it’s just that a lot of people misundersood surveys to start with. You don’t get know who said what with a survey. They are anonymized. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve had to break that to an instructor when it was FAR too late.


  • Forwarding a message from a mailing list to two colleagues; had moment of terror thinking I had sent reply to the list.
  • Thinking about what angle to take in an article proposal relating to our new website project. Project management? Creating (or trying to create) a digital culture? Both?
  • Emailed dev about bringing graphic design person into our skype call this aft; now reading LITAblog


  • Chatting with FLC tech about new website, schedule for creating pages, etc.
  • Played with FLC tech’s new iPod Touch: decided to suggest we use library iPod Touches to have students update library twitter accounts. (Specifically: one on traffic flow in the library.)
  • Got a delighted reception to the idea of having students use our 2 ipod touches to update library twitter feeds. Discovered ipod Touches are out of the library, and thus cannot begin setting them up and testing them.


  • Call with developer’s Project Manager (Barbara) on Skype. No word yet on how I can manage my desire for mutiple blogs, tags, and categories.
  • Design looks good. Minor changes proposed and accepted. Colours finalized. Hosting situation discussed.


  • Finished call with the developer. Need to mod hours php file. Added to to-do list. Brain not quite ready to fix code today.
  • Discover yet more evidence that the “net generation” isn’t all that hip to the interwebs.


  • Brain slowly going numb from the sound of the construction going on, seemingly directly over my head.
  • Created new Twitter account for traffic reports in the library. UTMLtraffic it is.
  • Help reference desk show an instructor how to graft multiple lecture sections into one course website. That felt weird. Normally I do those things myself, now I just hear about other people doing it. :/


  • Still don’t understand why so many girls want to spend quality time hanging out in library bathrooms.
  • Briefly discussed GIS/Data website with GIS tech.
  • Have headache.
  • Construction noises have stopped.


  • Post day’s tweets and assorted happenings to blog.
  • Going home!
  • Get call from developer’s Project Manager (Barbara) about blogs and what’s possible
  • Blogs the way I want them appear to be doable. Yay!


  • Now: actually going home!
One Step at a Time: Taking the Library Website from reference source to communication tool

One Step at a Time: Taking the Library Website from reference source to communication tool

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job? My head has been in a bit of a fog with it the last few months. The only thing on my horizon currently is my current task: rethinking, restructuring, and recreating the library’s website.

When I explain what the project is, it seems like such a small thing, really. We have a website: surely we’re just making it prettier and adding a few extra pages of text, right? This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Our original goal with the project was to create a local hub for our community; we wanted our website to be not only for our community but by our community. We wanted it to have a lot of interaction, where students could contribute in a variety of ways. We wanted it to belong to them as much as to us. This is, of course, a very lofty goal. Few websites manage to do this; why would a library website be one of them? There were a wide variety of things we really wanted to implement so that we could assist students in communicating not only with us but with each other. We took a look around at what happens in the building and decided that the same kind of activity should also be happening on the website; see and be seen, chat with friends, find classmates who are studying at the same time as you are. We could be antagonistic to the fact that we are apparently the facebook of our campus, given all the various problems that come with that (noise in particular) but instead we’re seeing it as a valid use of the space. Our overall goals including helping students to learn better. You can’t learn with people you don’t trust. How do you build trust? You chat, you share, you relate to each other in friendly ways. Are libraries places to meet people, chat with friends, build community? Why shouldn’t they be? We can encourage it, preserve the traditional “library quiet” in the places where it’s expected, and infuse our social and academic spaces with resources and services to help.

Our goals for the website were lofty. A little too lofty for our first iteration, as it turns out. Not just because of time (though that’s a huge factor) and not just because of money (also a huge factor). It’s also got a lot to do with cultural change in an institution, getting various groups of people on the same page, getting resources you don’t necessarily have any history of requesting, and generally changing expectations on every level. Slow change is sometimes the best we can accomplish. I’m not a patient person, but I think what we’re trying to accomplish needs patience. So a few technical hurdles are probably just what was required to slow me down a bit.

So what we’re going to present in a few weeks is different than what our original goals suggested. It’s going to look like 180 degree turn to some, I realize. But the more I got into the project, the more I realized that we’re not yet entirely qualified to start building digital community. We don’t live digitally yet as a library. How can we responsibly foster such a community, encourage interaction, when we’re not doing it ourselves? So in our steps toward creating a community website, the first thing we need to do is focus on us.

This is totally counter-intuitive. I know this is one of the battles I’m going to need to fight: in order to be a part of a community, you need talk as much as you need to listen. The received wisdom on this point is that to be a trusted source, you listen to your audience and give them what they want. I shall now turn that on its ear: to be valuable and trusted, you need to demonstrate who you are and what you do. Not just once, but constantly. It’s not enough to listen; we’re listening, and no one knows who we are. We are faceless. We can be an echo chamber for our patrons, or we can show them who we actually are and what we actually do. We can share our passion with them. We can tell them about all the really interesting things that we encounter on a regular basis. We can talk about the things that slow us down. Talking doesn’t stop us from listening. In order to be part of a community we hope to provide resources for, we need to open up and share.

So the first iteration of our website will be about us sharing. It will be about us telling you what’s going on and what we’re thinking about. This is going to be a challenge on all sides. As I said, we are not a digital culture here. Other than me, no one is used to musing aloud in public. We are currently a closed circle, looking at each other and filling the space between us with papers and words. Now, we will face outward, and you will get to see those words. They will be for you as much as for us.

What this means: regular updates on things like construction in the library. It won’t just be a little sign for you to read on the way in; you can see the plans, the ideas, the fundraising goals. You will know that we are having some of our soft furnishing replaced, that we’re rearranging the fourth floor because the original plan didn’t make as much sense as we thought, and that we have big plans for the structure of the library in the future. There are so many really exciting things going on related to the physical space; there’s no good reason not to share it with our community. We can talk about ideas we have about replacing our loaner laptops with hardy netbooks. (Just ideas, but good ones!) When something explodes in the library world, we can be upfront and clear with our community about how it effects them, and hear about what we’re doing about it ourselves. We can track the progress of all the new initiatives that are starting up in the library, including my own position, Emerging Technologies.

So our first go with our new website is going to be about a change in practice and in metaphor. Our website is not just a big book full of how-tos that you can pull down when you need it, though we’re going to make sure it’s easy to find out how to do everything we know students are going to need to know how to do. The book metaphor is gone. We’re not just trying to serve all known needs. We’re also trying to engage with our community on the issues we are passionate about. We are trying to inform everyone about what’s going on here, what the plans are, how we’re considering an issue or a problem. We will not be faceless. We will not be without our particular interests and specialties. We will not be perfect PR. We will be human beings who happen to love the work that we do.

You can give someone a blank piece of paper and tell them to write. Or you can give them a book full of ideas and comments and ask them to jot down their response. The first one seems easier, but is actually harder. So we’ll start. We’ll start the process of creating an institutional space that changes all the time, that reflects the people in the building, and responds to the community in every way that they talk back. As time goes on, we’ll expand the voices that populate our website. We want to hear more from students and faculty. We want to provide them with tools to communicate with each other.

One step at a time.

It’s not Multi-Tasking: The Conversation

It’s not Multi-Tasking: The Conversation

I was going to write up a post about this, but the conversation may have summed it up best for now:

me: I read a dana boyd post today
me: I am brewing a post now
me: it was about people getting offended when you’re online during a presentation
Jason: ya, I heard about that one
me: she was expressing frustration at the misunderstanding
Jason: people talk too slow and over explain too much and never listen to each other so they make the wrong assumptions over and over…
me: I think I’ll have to fight it from a learning angle
me: I was thinking about writing about why it works
me: like…why you can be hyper focused on something
me: and look like you’re not
me: in most situations
Jason: 🙂
me: the only ones I think it doesn’t work in are fictional
me: like, movies
me: not all movies
me: but a good movie
me: or a book
Jason: you mean cause there’s a real narrative flow that must be sequential?
me: maybe!
me: I don’t know why…that’s a good reason
Jason: zactly
me: I know I have no desire to tweet anything in the middle of a good movie
me: sometimes I want to snark in a bad one though
Jason: usually I can plot out a movie by the time the credits are done
Jason: of course there will be some inconsitencies, but still
me: lol
Jason: with a conference presentation you can do it from the title
me: yeah, pretty much
Jason: unless osmeone’s one of those great process story teller conference paper givers
me: but also…the valuable parts are usually spaced out
me: a speaker is never giving sterling bits of info every second
me: because we breathe
me: and shuffle papers
me: and use connecting phrases
me: and reiterate
me: mostly because we reiterate
me: I should write this up when I get home
Jason: so, if you want all my attention all the time, give me something to attend to
me: yep
me: like, in a good talk
me: you make your point and then prove it three times
me: that’s how we’re trained
me: so it’s kind of easy to get the point the first time, and then let your brain work for the rest of that section
me: you come up with your own proofs or counter evidence
me: and then you transition
me: and then you make another point
me: and prove it three times
me: intellectually, a talk is like lace
me: filled with space
Jason: ya ya. weaving an argument
me: the only time I’d need to pay as much attention as they think I do
me: is if I decided to count your use of the word “the”

Twitter and Libraries

Twitter and Libraries

In preparation for our new library website, I have been working on some social media policies. I’ve never really been much of a policy person before, but I recognize that because I am bringing in some standard social media tools, I’m going to have to define some best practices. I got my first blog in 2001 and had many conversations back then and ever since about what is and is not appropriate content; I’ve had many years to think about it and get comfortable with my own boundaries. As I prepare to give each content creator in our library a blog, I realize that a policy might be the best way to share some of that experience. No need for everyone to stub their toes and scrape their knees via a professional medium.

Blogging policies are actually pretty easy to generate these days. There are tons of them around, since many industries encourage corporate/professional blogging, and most have developed policies for them. Maybe it’s also easier to do because we have, I think, determined the distinction between a personal blog (like this one) and a professional one. It’s not a foreign concept.

The hard part comes when trying to come up with a Twitter policy.

I posted both my draft blogging policy and my draft twitter policy on twitter to get some feedback from people who use these services. Here there are for your information. The Blogging policy starts with the legal and then moves into guidelines; the Twitter one doesn’t have as much legal, I think the general TOS of Twitter covers that.

These two are actually contained in one document on my side; I split them up because at first I wasn’t going to post the Twitter policy. I thought it would be…controversial, not helpful to anyone else, not useful outside our very specific context. I expected it to be widely disliked. I think what people are expecting is something more like this; some friendly guidelines that help a librarian engage with her patrons by treating Twitter as a personal, interactive communication medium. My guidelines are very nearly the opposite of that.

Now: as a librarian who uses Twitter a lot, follows a lot of librarians, and gets into a lot of discussions on Twitter about library issues, I understand where people are going with their personal guidelines. I suppose I think I’m the last person in the world who should tell another librarian how to use Twitter personally. As a person. As themselves. For themselves. For their own development. Reading through those guidelines, I can almost hear the chorus coming from all the non-Twitter, non-social media librarians of the world: “When am I supposed to find the time for that?!” I love using Twitter to share and question and communicate, but I’m not sure it’s the best use of an institution’s time. Which is why my policy runs counter to what I do personally.

So I guess my policy isn’t so much for the people who want to use Twitter the way I do. It’s for people who don’t, who have no interest in social media, but who still need to communicate with their patrons in the widest possible way.

Here are the reasons why I want to use Twitter for our library website and for our digital signage:

  • It’s easier/less intimidating to post to Twitter than to write a professional, thoughtful blog post
  • Because it’s so easy, I’m hoping I can convince the uncertain to make easy updates via Twitter that I can distribute throughout the website in key, relevant places
  • Twitter updates are the perfect size to feed onto our brand new digital signage, which is mounted in front of every elevator and pointing at every angle in our Information Commons
  • I can get many updates a day from library staff to the digital signage without having a login to the digital signage software
  • I can invite many people to update a single Twitter feed without opening the website up to risk by having many people update one node
  • I can get student staff input on a Twitter feed without giving them content creator status on the website
  • Unlike our website, Twitter can be updated from a phone, which means we are more likely to get rapid updates from our campus partners and IT staff
  • My current means of communicating things like “Blackboard is down! It’s not just you! We’re working on it!” is to write it on a white board and roll it out in front of the main doors.

I’m not planning to use Twitter for Twitter’s sake. I am advocating the use of Twitter as a broadcast medium, as unpopular as that might be. I’m not sure Twitter is really at its best when it’s conversational, though I may be in the minority on that. There are so many better conversational media, and we’re using those too. We’ll have mulitple meebo widgets scattered throughout the site; some staff want a personal one. If you want to have a conversation, we will ensure that you can. Twitter actually is a broadcast medium, as far as I can tell.

Maybe this is a redefinition of the term “broadcast”. On Twitter, I broadcast my thoughts, my ideas. When I’m at a conference, I broadcast a lot. My use in that case isn’t dependent on anyone reading my broadcast or responding to it. If someone broadcasts their own response to what I’m saying, I can broadcast a response back. Blogs are a broadcast medium as well, in very much the same way, in spite of all the hype about the conversationality of blogging. Just because it’s a broadcast medium doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention to its context or responding to questions or comments around it. Not using Twitter to @reply to singular users in public doesn’t make it less useful, in my opinion. Or even less personal, less engaging, or less a good use of the medium.

The great thing about Twitter is that I can use it this way and it won’t affect anyone else at all; in fact, I don’t really care how many other Twitter users follow our broadcast Twitter account. I don’t anticipate that our students will; almost none of them (statistically) are on Twitter to start with, or have any interest in using it. I don’t want to exclude them by using Twitter-specific conventions or lingo. My goal is not to draw them into Twitter or increase their use of social media (not with this initiative, at least). Our use of Twitter in this way serves our needs first; we have vital information to distribute to students in our own building and campus, and currently have very limited means of doing so. We’re going to use Twitter to distribute it in a way we’ve never been able to do before. If it happens to serve a Twitter community at the same time, I’m delighted.

In short: I wrote a couple of social media policies for libraries as institutions rather than for librarians as individuals. They may or may not be useful, interesting, or appropriate to your situation. I’m still not sure how I feel about them myself. But I will certainly be tracking how it works this year.

Any feedback or comments on the policies is gratefully accepted, and will probably spawn more navel-gazing and fussing on my part.

Digital Normals

Digital Normals

This may be my favourite bit of research lately. Teens aren’t internet superusers: if anyone is, it looks like it’s adults.

Pull this out the next time someone regales with you more anecdotal evidence that the kids these days are “digital natives” and we cannot understand their ways.