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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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

The Death of Newspapers

The Death of Newspapers

My old friend Michael drew my attention to an article by Michael Nieslen about changes in publishing and how the paradigm shifts catch companies by surprise. In short:

Each industry has (or had) a standard organizational architecture. That organizational architecture is close to optimal, in the sense that small changes mostly make things worse, not better. Everyone in the industry uses some close variant of that architecture. Then a new technology emerges and creates the possibility for a radically different organizational architecture, using an entirely different combination of skills and relationships. The only way to get from one organizational architecture to the other is to make drastic, painful changes. The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

It’s not that they’re malevolent; they’re just stuck in an institutional structure that is too difficult to change. His first example is newspapers; the New York Times (in decline) versus TechCrunch (in the black).

That got me thinking: what would it take for me to go back to supporting a newspaper? Because, in truth, I love newspapers. I haven’t subscribed to one in about two years now, but I do love newspapers. I just don’t like getting one every day. First: they’re messy. The ink stained my carpet at the point where it met the front door, because the newspaper deliverer would drop it just so. It stained my fingers. They pile up and have to be transported somewhere and be disposed of. They’re net worth isn’t sufficient for all the work I have to do to maintain their presence in my daily life. However: I love sitting outside on the patio of our favourite breakfast place with Jeremy, trading parts of the paper, skimming the stuff that is vaguely interesting, digging down on the stuff that’s very interesting, ignoring the sports section…I suppose we use the newspaper as our internet when we’re not online, or when being online would be too costly, too disruptive, or too awkward. Clearly it’s simply a matter of time before we have devices that will fill this desire handily: a roll of thin plastic, perhaps, tucked under an arm, an easy part of the breakfast scene, online for cheap no matter where we are, showing us only the articles that are at least vaguely interesting if not very interesting to us, with no sports section to ignore; our device would have the upsides of the newspaper (no computers cluttering up the table, getting between the food, the people), but the cleanliness, customizability and immediacy of the internet. The future newspaper is a gadget.

Michael Nieslen says: “My claim is that in ten to twenty years, scientific publishers will be technology companies.” Could that be true of newspapers as well? Is the medium more valuable to us than the content? If newspapers managed to produce the device, instead of the content, or perhaps in conjunction with some content funded by the popularity of the device, could that be their future?

Beth Jefferson makes the case that librarians should carefully watch the decline of the newspaper industry, because our descent is similar and may come soon afterward. We, also, are less about our content than about the medium in which we can present them. Our devices are buildings; while “the library without walls” meme has been going around for a while, the reality is that people still need space, and our spaces are popular as spaces to work, think, be and be seen. At the very least. When we move into things like ubiquitous interfaces, maybe our space becomes the medium, the device.

A recent report on libraries and mobile technologies suggested that we wait on developing mobile tech versions of our collections and services, a conclusion with which some disagreed. While I’m all for being cutting edge (bleeding edge, even), I agree with the report. We have no idea where this mobile thing is going. If we had gone all mobile three years ago (when we easily could have gone to town with it), and then the iphone would have appeared, with its alternate internet of apps. Mobile devices don’t tend to do the web well; rather than get better at it, we’re creating a new web for them, designed with their location-awareness, mobility, and lack of keyboards in mind. What if our big future isn’t in making our content web/mobile friendly, but in building ourselves into the e-newspaper or the e-book, letting you do “more like this” searches, hooking up bibliographies, keyword searches within (digital, mobile) text? Maybe the future of libraries is an app inside an app? What about blackberries and other smartphones? Are they going to get in on this app revolution? Are we going to have competing app universes to contend with? The data plan revolution (at least in Canada) is clearly coming, but when? And what will it bring with it? What restrictions will we be under?

I see the legacy of “waiting” that newspapers have demonstrated has not served them particularly well. But on the flip side, jumping in without getting the full lay of the land doesn’t have a good track record either. Maybe we’re all about to come technology companies, in some way or other.

Me in Six Panels

Me in Six Panels

Next year I will be challenging library staff to use a comic strip application (bitstrips) to explain their who they are and what they do in the library to a student audience. It’s still months away, but here’s my shot at it:

Librarians and Elsevier

Librarians and Elsevier

Not news: an Australian unit of Elsevier contracted with drugmakers to publish what appeared to be medical journals that didn’t disclose who had paid for them. In other words, Merck supposedly created a fake peer-reviewed journal to publish data that made its drugs look good. It also got Elsevier to publish the journal to make it look legit (Elsevier being one of the bigger publishers of — of course — proprietary medical journals). This news has been filtered through the internet for a couple of weeks now.

It wasn’t a librarian who discovered the problem, though. Which makes me wonder: is it the role of librarians to examine journals that present themselves as peer reviewed to ensure that they really are? The Progressive Librarians’ Guild thinks we should. Others think it’s not feasible for us to do so. But given that libraries give authority to journals by subscribing to them, don’t we have an ethical responsibility to try to find the fakes?

As my friend Jennifer is wont to say, it’s time we work out what business we’re in and clearly articulate it. I’m not sure I even get it anymore.

Search Strings: The Return

Search Strings: The Return

I haven’t done this in a long while, mostly because I did something to my site that prevented me from being able to access them anymore, and I only recently thought about adding Google Analytics. So now I can see them again! So here we go:

“a diary is an example can you til me is primary or secondary
This is interesting; homework question? It’s clearly not a copy/paste, or a typed in copy from a question sheet. It looks like it was typed in on the fly; is this an example of someone using a computer/device while in class? If so, do you think that’s a good or a bad thing? It’s research, right? Is this an example of someone getting the internet to do their thinking for them?

ban a friend (email with comma) subject
Ban a friend…from where? IM? Facebook? email with comma, does that tell us why this person wants to ban a friend? It’s a mystery!

cheapest sd cards
I suspect no one needs me to add a data point to the research indicating that people use the internet to buy things. And to find deals. But this does indicate that people look pretty broadly to find general advice before buying technology and its associated bits.

confessions of an ugly stepsister chapter summaries
There’s always someone looking for ways to avoid reading the book. It’s a good book; just read it! It won’t take that long!

dream and meaning and running home across a field
This one is an interesting combination of boolean and free text. Not “dream interpretation”, but dream AND meaning AND “running home across a field”.

dreaming of making out with someone but don’t see there face
I must post too much about dreams, apparently. This one is on the verge of being a full-blown question, interestingly; if you added an “I’m” to the front, and then the obvious question at the end, “What do you think that means?” While the first dream related question shows evidence of some thought in terms of search construction, this one is more free-flowing, containing mostly words that won’t bring up a useful result.

how do you find if someone had been running a search for your name on the internet
An entire question, minus the question mark. Now: conceivably this might work; if someone created an FAQ with this as a question on it, you’d get a good result. But given the lack of quotation marks, it reads more as if the user is asking google a question rather than searching it. I love how conversational it is. We really do think of google as an extension of our brains in a way, don’t we? Our searches are so stream-of-consciousness.

how to do that google search thing where your name comes up and it says “did you mean”
Speaking of conversational! Yeah, it’s as if instead of the Google logo, the words above the search box says “I would like to know…” and the user merely finishes the sentence. I wonder how many hits you get when you search for “that google search thing”.

primary source subject heading strings capitalization
Someone’s cataloguing homework?

swallow lymph nude on back of my neck and can’t fell on that side
This is a strange combination of search terms and conversationality. Since you can’t very well swallow your lymph nodes, I presume those are separate constructions; swallow, plus “lymph node on back of my neck” “can’t feel on that side”. A pretty ingenious way to search for a series of symptoms, really. If it weren’t for the spelling errors. It’s always easier to type symptoms into google than it is to go see your doctor. But rule number one when you have a serious illness; don’t google it. What you’ll find will only depress you.

the emerging tools to access oa content.
With a period, no less!

what could me to have a rough feeling red ring around my neck
More stream-of-conscious medical questions. We talk about how users don’t need training in how to use Google, and we know they don’t usually go beyond the first page of search results, but looking at strings like this makes it clear that they don’t really know how to use the tool. There’s just so much in it, and we appear to have so much patience with google searching (we like the browse aspect, I guess?) that we will keep hammering at it until we get somewhere that interests us.

whining and complaining examples
You came to the right place!

will having the radioactive iodine treatmenat to kill my thyroid also get rid of the puffyness around my eyes?
Of course I’m going to attract the radioactive iodine and thyroid cancer crowd. Now this one interests me for a whole other reason. No matter how sick we are, vanity is always there, isn’t it. For me, I knew how big my scar was going to be, but I didn’t really care very much about that part; I didn’t care about how it would make me look. Once I had it I realized that it marked me as damaged, made me sort of Frankenstein-like. Pulled apart. Never the same again. I never once considered whether radioactive iodine would have an effect on my face, except that I worried about whether it would block up my salivary glands. However, it’s pretty clear that this person doesn’t have thyroid cancer, s/he has hyperthyroidism. But I don’t think the radiation would change puffiness. It only gets rid of the bug-eyed look that comes with Graves Disease. Sadly, there’s no pill that will magically turn us into Scarlett Johansson.

you don’t have to be afraid of cancer anymore
I hope that’s an accurate prediction.

Twitter Follow Fail/Win

Twitter Follow Fail/Win

In response to Mashable’s Twitter Follow Fail, my own 10 Reasons why I won’t follow you on Twitter:

1. You’re trying to sell me something. This goes for all entrepreneurs of all varieties, particularly the “social media” ones. Now, if you’re a social media entrepreneur but not directly using Twitter to market yourself and your company, but instead using Twitter like everyone else, that’s cool.

2. You follow a zillion people. By a zillion I mean something near or over a thousand, because it’s unlikely that you’re even able to follow all those people. So why are you following me? It’s not like you’re really going to read what I’m saying right? Now, as an exception: if your tweets are awesome and I want to follow you for the content, I don’t care how many people you follow, and if you follow me I will follow you back.

3. You follow a zillion people, hardly anyone follows you, and you have no posts. It’s work to follow a zillion people, so I’m suspicious. Are you using twitter as a feed reader? I sometimes post links, but that’s not really what I use twitter for. Are you just trying to gather followers?

4. You post pretty much nothing but RTs and memes. I’d rather follow people with original ideas rather than rerouters.

5. You post about your follower count. “Three more followers and I’ll be at X00!” “Yay, just hit 500 followers!” Anything like that. Even if I know you, this calls for an immediate unfollow. Sorry. I don’t want to be a notch in anyone’s belt. Clarification: posting about wondering why a bunch of people recently unfollowed you, and wondering if you’ve been offensive, doesn’t make me unfollow. It’s only if you’re demonstrating that you’re using twitter only partly to do anything other than gather enough followers to feel good about yourself.

6. Your archives consist largely of @replies. Some people say this is a display of engaging with your community, but I have my twitter set to not show me any @replies to people I don’t follow. So: if all you do is use twitter as a public chatroom, I’m not going to see your updates anyway. And I don’t think that’s a very effective use of the medium.

7. You post about specific topics that don’t interest me. I sometimes get followed by people who post mostly about life with kids kids, or entertaining kids. I don’t dislike kids, but I have no interest in reading about them on twitter. Sorry. edit: unless I know you and/or your kids. I want to hear about @halavais‘s baby, of course. just not generic stuff for kids. Well, unless it’s YA fiction, which is a whole other topic. Maybe I should think this one through some more.

8. You’re a “life coach”. Just…no.

9. All your posts appear to be automated. I don’t really understand the phenomenon, and I already use a greasemonkey script to remove them from my feed. If all your updates are just links, I’m unlikely to follow you.

10. You are arguing against gay marriage, posting about your love of the Republicans or of Stephen Harper. So not interested.

Now: 10 reasons I WILL follow you on Twitter:

1. You’re a librarian. I love following librarians. All kinds of librarians. I like to use Twitter as part of my work, so I love seeing what librarians are thinking about.

2. You work in a library. I love hearing from everyone in the library world.

3. You’re in library school. I miss being in school, so I’d be very very happy to read updates about your classes and things that interest you. I think of it as a way to listen in on classes.

4. You’re interested in social media/emerging technologies from an educational/community perspective. I’m not interested in the “social media for profit” crowd, but am very interested in the “social media for fun and learning” crowd.

5. You make me laugh. Hello, @StephenFry.

6. I know you, or I should know you. You live in Toronto, you work at the same school as me, we move in the same circles, you’re my husband, my best friend, or my dad. We’ve had dinner together. We hang out on the same IRC channel or other online community. Something like that.

7. You go to the same conferences I do. I will definitely follow you if I see you tweeting about the same conferences I’m at. I love to hear the thoughts of other conference attendees.

8. You’re at a conference I wish I were at. It’s great to hear what’s going on at a conference I can’t attend. If you’re there, I might want to keep following you after the conference too.

9. I admire your work. Academics, start-up owners, Googlers, etc.

10. You respond to me in an interesting way. I might not have noticed you before, but you responded to something I said in a way that piqued my interest. I’m a sucker for intelligence and thoughtfulness.

I bet this says a lot about what I use twitter for.



So: new job title (“Emerging Technologies Librarian”). Definitely something that I wanted to see happen. I feel like it reflects what I actually do a lot better. Though I have pangs of regret when I think about instructional technology, but the lines are still blurry. Now I deliberately look at emerging technologies in teaching and learning, or maybe ones that haven’t quite emerged at all yet. Also emerging technologies as they apply to libraries in general, and our library in particular.

It’s exciting to have a job title that reflects what I’m already doing anyway, but it’s also kind of intimidating. I mean, keeping up with the trends was something I did as a bonus. Suddenly it’s in my job title.

So I was thinking about what trends I’m currently tracking, and I wonder how they fit into the whole “emerging” thing.

Second Life/Virtual Worlds. I’ve been on this one for a while, but I still think it’s emerging. Mostly because I think no one’s popularized the one true way to use virtual worlds in teaching and learning yet. In fact, there are so many wrong ways in practice currently that many people are getting turned off using Second Life in teaching. I’m still interested in it. I’m a builder, I’m interested in what you could use the environment for to build things and have students build things. A giant collaborative place filled with student-created expression of course content would be awesome. So I’m holding on to this one.

Twitter. I can’t believe I’m putting it on the list, but I am. Mostly because I’ve been talking about how great it is at a conference for some time now and I’m starting to see the argument come back to me from much larger places. People complain about what people twitter during events (“Too critical! Too snarky! The audience is the new keynote!”), but that’s pretty much exactly what would make things interesting in a classroom. I want to install the open source version and try it out with a willing instructor. I’m also interested in it for easy website updates, but most people would tell me that that’s a total misuse of the application. (Too bad!)

Ubiquitous Computing. I’ll say that instead of mobile devices. The hardware will come and go, but the concept of ubiquity for computing is fascinating. It’s coming in fits and starts; I want to see how I can push this one in small ways in the library. Computing without the computer. Ideally without a cell phone either. This is something I’m going to track for a good long while. I have this ubiquitous future in my head that seems like a perfect setting for a cyberpunk novel. (I might get around to writing it one of these days.)

Cheap Storage. As a rule hardware isn’t my area, but I’m interested to see what it means that storage capacity is getting so crazily cheap. If I can carry 120 gb in my pocket without even noticing it, what does that mean for computing in general?

Cloud Computing. This goes along with the cheap storage. Jeremy tells me we will never be affected by the cloud because we are a locked down environment for the most part, but I think he might be wrong. Even if we can’t fully employ the cloud because of security and legal limitations, I think the concept of cloud computing will sink into the consciousnesses of our users. We will need to be prepared to offer services as easily as the cloud can.

Netbooks. This fits in with cloud computing and cheap storage; if we can have tiny little computers with us at all times, massive amounts of physical storage and powerful applications coming down from the cloud, what does the world end up looking like?

Social Networks. Embracing the networks you have, on facebook, on IRC, on Twitter, on IM, wherever. Accepting that we are no longer a culture that uses its brain for information storage; we are processors, connectors. We store our knowledge in machines and in our networks. While social software may look like too much fun to be productive, those social networks are what’s going to scaffold us through most of the rest of our lives. Learning how to respectfully and usefully employ our networks as part of our learning (and teaching, for that matter) is an important skill.

There are some other pieces that are just never going to go away: blogging (for librarians!), wikis for everyone, IM: I think we’ve finally reached a point where we can intelligently choose the best tool for the task at hand from an incredible range of options. So I think part of the emerging trend is to use what’s best, not necessarily what’s most powerful, most expensive, or most popular. Things like twitter and netbooks are evidence of that: sometimes you don’t need all the bells and whistles.

So that’s my emerging update of the moment.

Wireless in the Classroom

Wireless in the Classroom

My campus is planning the construction of a building dedicated to instruction; state of the art classroom technology, lots of computers, a space where a large class can take a monitored online test. There is, I’m told, a debate about whether or not to put wireless access into the building. Many instructors dislike the idea of students being online while they teach; “being online” means “not paying attention”, after all. The internet is fun and games, and learning is meant to be work.

No, that’s harsh, isn’t it.

Being online means chatting with your friends and goofing off. You shouldn’t be chatting with your friends and goofing off while you’re sitting in a lecture. It’s not respectful.

Except: what about people like me, who get so tied up in knots about the subject at hand that I need to spill my ideas out to SOMEone, SOMEwhere, and often use IM to channel my over-enthusiasm? (I think Jason took all my library school classes with me, virtually, through my constant stream of IMs.) What if that “chatting with friends” prevents someone like me from interrupting and turning your lecture into a one-on-one discussion? Or, what if the “chatting with friends” helps a student refine her critique? Or keeps her engaged, because otherwise her mind wanders and if reporting what she’s hearing about in the classroom to a trusted and interested friend helps her retain the knowledge better?

What if that trip to wikipedia, or google, helps clarify something? What if that internet activity is related to the process of learning the material?

Why does the instructor get to make the decisions about how students are going to learn?

Why are we more interested in optics than in allowing students to be adults and choose their own learning methods?

Why don’t we trust students?

Why do we not make use of the amazing resources available online while we’re teaching? Why not allow students to use virtual reference desks worldwide to get questions answered for the class, or check UN stats, or otherwise contribute meaningfully to the lecture? Why not harness the fact that students like to do something other than sit still in a room for three hours and ask students to go forage for elements that can enrich everyone’s learning experience? Why not be more interactive? Why not share not just expertise but a true love of seeking out information and turning it into knowledge? Why not just expect the learning part to happen after class, but in class as well?

Why not allow students to take notes collaboratively, on a wiki, or with Google notebook, or other, multi-cursor collaborative software?

Why not allow students to twitter their questions and ideas (you can easily monitor that)?

Why not give students a chance to react?

I’d like to throw together a video about why wifi in the classroom is a good thing. If you’ve got an opinion, go below and record me a little video describing your ideas, experience, anything. It doesn’t need to be long. I’ll mash them together into a video and upload them to YouTube. Please help!

Twitter and the Library

Twitter and the Library

My latest all-consuming project is working to redesign/rework/completely renew our library’s website. It’s still early days, but there are certain lessons I’ve learned from my last all-consuming project (introducing coureware to the campus); you can never communicate too much. Even when you think you’re communicating enough, you probably aren’t.

From the worst days to the best days rolling out software to faculty and students, no one ever accused me of giving them too much information. While the internet is a very social medium, it can also be a very isolating one at the same time. When people are trying to get from point A to point B using some software that you answer for (even if you don’t control it), there’s really no way you can get too far into their personal space. They want to know that you’re there, that you’re anticipating their questions, that you’re aware of the problems they’re encountering. I never, ever want to go into downtime or unexpected system backfires without the ability to send out a message saying, “I feel your pain; here’s what I’m doing to help solve the problem. I’ll keep you in the loop.” It’s a lot easier to cope with problems online when you know someone somewhere is working on it.

And this is primarily where I have a problem with the static library website. The first page always stays the same; it’s generally got all the same information on it. This is good when you’re trying to teach people where to find stuff, if you think of your website as a static structure that should be learned. But it’s terrible if you consider your website your library’s (non-expressive) face.

I think there are two ways to think about a library website: it’s either a published document (heavily planned and edited before it’s published, published, then referred to), or it’s your communication tool. As a communication tool, it’s not published in the same way that books are published. It’s available, it’s public, it’s indexable, but it’s not static, it’s not finished. I kind of wonder if we should get rid of the term “publish” from these kinds of online tools. Sure, you put stuff online and it’s in wet cement (as Larry put it best), ie, likely to be around forever, but our concept of publishing suggests a kind of frozen quality, a finished quality. To me one of the best things about the web is our ability to leave nothing untouched. A communication tool, rather than a published document, should never look the same twice. It should always be telling you something new, informing you, reflecting the real people behind it.

So as we start laying down the foundations for a new library website, I keep thinking of ways to pierce it through with holes through which the real workings of the library, the real voices of the people who work there, can come through. I want students to get a sense that the library isn’t a solid object; it’s a place filled with people, people who work very hard to make things better for them, at that. People working to make sure the collections match the needs of their instructors and their course expectations, helping them with assignments, helping them find the resources they need, helping them use the software they need to use to succeed. I’d like to see if we can use social software to help make that work more transparent to students and faculty alike. Librarians do good work; everyone should see that work.

The first most obvious way I thought about making sure this transparency and easy communication was possible was through blogs. In my dreamworld, these long thought-pieces about technology and libraries would go on a library blog, not my personal one. But I’m not the only one thinking about things like collections blogs with discipline-specific categories, or reference blogs. Once this information is shared and online in an RSS-able format, we can shoot it in all kinds of useful directions. And then I started thinking about the things students know right now that they’d like to know: busted printers, software problems, unavailable computer labs, courseware downtime. How busy the library is. (Ours is more often packed to the gills than not.) The obvious things. We know about them before the students do: isn’t there some quick way we can tell them?

So then I got to thinking about twitter. Twitter for immediate messages. It doesn’t take up that much space, embedded on a page. And it keeps everyone to 140 characters. Like facebook status messages, but about the systems you’re trying to use. You can find out if they’re having a bad day or not before even trying to wrestle with them. I like it. Transparency, a little personality, a little humanness, and lots of communication.

We’ll see how it goes.

Hidden Reward

Hidden Reward

Block me, and I will go around you. Build a wall, and I will build a door. Lock the door and I will break a window. And if I don’t have have a leader to inspire me, I will lead. If I don’t have a team that will support me, I will recruit a team from beyond the organizational boundaries – every policy has a loophole, every system has a hidden reward.”
The Participatory Librarianship Starter Kit, via The Shifted Librarian

Real World Virtuality

Real World Virtuality

I started reading Spook Country last night before bed, the first chapter of which ends with a virtual world/real-world mashup that has the main character standing in front of the Viper Room in LA looking down at a dead River Phoenix on the sidewalk in front of her. Leaving aside a whole other post I could write about the significance of that particular moment to people born around when I was, it made me think about gaming and ubiquitous computing.

I suspect most of what I’m about to say is so passe to most people who think about gaming and the internet, but it was a fun revelation for me, at least.

When I first started talking outloud about ubiquitous computing in the library after the Copenhagen keynote about sentient cities, our chief librarian wilted a little. “We just built this place!” she said. But I think ubiquitous computing is not going to come from the walls at all; I think it’s just going to use the walls to interface with mobile computing.

Okay imagine it: you have VR goggles. You put on your goggles and you see the world around you, but also the game space. You have already entered in the usernames of your friends, who are also playing this game with you. You are synced up to GPS, so your goggles know where you are in relation to your environment. You have chosen a genre or theme, but the game is constructed on the fly by the system based on the environment you’ve chosen, the number of civilians in your view, weather information, and variables drawn from the user profiles of you and your friends.

So say you pick a large field by a river for your game space. Maybe you do a walkthrough it first with your goggles on so that the system can add more detail to the GPS and map data; that data would go into a central repository for geographical information. The system can then generate characters that wander past, hide behind bushes, sit in trees, etc. You and your friends can all see the generated characters because of the goggles, so you can all interact with them simulaneously. The characters might be generated by the game designers, or they might be created by users, like the Spore creature creator, with backstories and voices all supplied by fans, vetted by the designers. You and your friends can be costumed by the system; when you look down at your own (bare) hands, they might be wearing chain mail gloves and be carrying a sword.

Or say you pick a city block as your game space; the system connects to google map data, and then also takes in information about all the people around you, and uses them as part of the game. It could turn the city in a futuristic place, with flying cars and impossibly tall buildings. Running around the city, chasing aliens, avoiding civilians, being a big ole’ gaming geek in full view of the public. Awesome.

So now: the virtual library could come with a pair of goggles and a good series of fast databases.

That would be pretty cool. Just sayin’.



Based on the previous post, I am seriously considering a day of lifecasting with Jason and Alex. Not sure about the logistics at all let alone a date (Jason prefers summer), but I think it would be an interesting challenge. In sum: we record as much as possible of our lives throughout a single day, in as many media as possible.

Current thoughts: photographs documenting where we are, what we look like; video documenting us interacting with our environments, pets, spouses, children, and possbly some video updates of us describing what we’re doing and what we’re thinking about; uploaded documents that we’re working on, email we’re sending (where feasible); playlists of what we’re listening to, lists of any movies/tv we watch; IM conversations; snippets of audio of things like our alarms going off, breakfast being cooked, etc.; descriptions and photos of any food we eat or drinks we drink; descriptions and data of basic things like maps of the area and weather reports. If we really want to get serious, we could add in things like body temperature and whatnot too. Full documentation.

At the the moment I think we should set up some separate place for all this information too be stored. The first thing that comes to mind is that we set up a blog with a lot of bells and whistles, and everyone who’s participating gets their own category. So you could see it all at once, or by person. I’d want to use twitter, but I’d want tweets to show up on the blog as well, in between the blog posts, ideally in a different colour. Marked off, so to speak. Also, I wouldn’t want to use my normal twitte account for all this. I bet that would just annoy the hell out of people. No sure if a blog will work as the basic platform, though. We still need to think that through. Jason may have a point about waiting a bit.

The general point of this exercise, as I currently understand it, is to demonstrate how much “information” we can create on a regular basis, turn it into digital, archivable material, and to force the question about how useful it really is. I’d also like to see for myself just what is and is not comfortable to reveal. Some obvious elements immediately spring to mind; can I ethically copy my email to the project? (As long as someone else’e email doesn’t show up as well? Can I ethically, or legally, make someone else’s email, addressed to me, publicly available? I suspect that would fall outside the scope of the project.) Will I modulate my behaviour because of how I want to be seen? Will I alter my behaviour because I know everything is being recorded? Is the concept of perpetual web archiving an influencing factor in what I’m prepared to share online? Does it stifle my communication? Does it inherently alter the nature of the information online? Traditional media certainly is shaped by its storage medium; I can’t imagine this would be any different. More than anything I’d worry that I’m being boring; will I spend all my time trying to be as witty and entertaining as possible? How does archiving actually become the material? I’m sure there are many more questions, these are just top of mind for me.

I think before we really get started I’ll have a look at lifecasting as it currently exists and see what I can learn from it. I don’t really want to do a life stream of video for archive, because the sheer size of the file such a video would have to be when it’s running the whole day makes me queasy. We could do ephemeral live streaming (I have no problem with that), but that sort of defeats the purpose. More investigation on this matter is required.

Anyone else interested in participating in this warped little experiment? It’s just one day. I think the reflection on the experience will be worthwhile. We might even have to write it up. We have lots of time to prepare. I think we have a lot of sorting out to do before we can really go forward. We can get together and develop some basic policy around how we’ll manage it. Jason’s probably right about the summer. It will probably take that long to sort out the details.

You in? Come on, it will be fun.

The Plight of Future Historians

The Plight of Future Historians

Today, the Guardian warns:

“Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft,” Brindley states. “I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It’s tragic.”

She believes similar gaps could appear in the national memory, pointing out that, contrary to popular assumption, internet companies such as Google are not collecting and archiving material of this type. It is left instead to the libraries and archives which have been gathering books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings for centuries. With an interim report from communications minister Lord Carter on the future of digital Britain imminent, Brindley makes the case for the British Library as the repository that will ensure emails and websites are preserved as reliably as manuscripts and books.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this imaginary plight of future historians, in spite of being a librarian. And it’s not because I don’t see the value in content that’s on the web. There are two sides of the question that I take issue with.

First: “everything should be archived”. This is simply impossible, and is actually misunderstanding what the internet is. If you understand it as a vast publication domain, where things are published every day that just don’t happen to be books, then this desire to archive it all makes sense. But is the stuff of the internet really published? Well, what does “published” really mean?

To be honest, I think the term has no meaning anymore. At one point, “published” meant that a whole team of people thought what you wrote was worth producing, selling, and storing. It comes with a sense of authority, a kind of title. It’s a way we divide the masses into those we want to listen to and those we don’t, in many different arenas. It connotes a sense of value (to someone, at least). Many people object to the idea that there’s value of any kind of the wild open internet, because just anyone can “publish”. I learned in my reference class at library school that one should always check the author of a book to see who they are and what institution they’re associated with before taking them seriously; if you fall outside our institutions, why, surely you have nothing of value to say, and you’re probably lying! Wikipedia: case in point. We have our ways to determine whether we ought to consider what you’re saying not based on the content, but on who and what you are. Apparently this protects us from ever having to have critical reading skills. We are afraid of being duped, so we cling to our social structures.

So many people just turn that “publish” definition on its head and say everything on the internet is “published”, everyone has a pulpit, everyone can be heard in the same way. I object to this as well. Turning an ineffective idea upside down doesn’t get us any closer to a useful definition of a term, or a practice.

Currently, this is how I define “publication”: blocks of text that are published by a company have been vetted and determined to be sellable to whatever audience the company serves. This holds for fiction, for academic work, etc.

Is content on the web “published”? What does that even mean? I think we start shifting to turn that meaning into “available”. If I write something and post it online, it’s available to anyone who wants to see it, but it’s not “published” in any traditional sense. If I take it down, does it become unpublished? Can I only unpublish if I get to it before it gets cached by anyone’s browsers, before Google gets to it? What if I post something online, but no search engine ever finds it and no one ever visits the page? Was it published then? If I put something online but lock it up and let no one see it, is it published?

I think we need a more sophisticated conception of publication to fully incorporate the way we use and interact with the web. I don’t think the traditional notion is helpful, and I think it presumes a kind of static life for web content that just isn’t there. Web content is read/write. It’s editable, it’s alterable. Rather than dislike that about the content, we should encourage and celebrate that. That’s what’s great about it.

There has always been ephemera. Most of it has been lost. Is that sad? I suppose so. As a (former) historian-in-training, I would have loved to get my hands on the ephemera of early modern women’s lives. I would love to know more about them, more about what drove them, what they’re lives were like. But I don’t feel like I’m owed that information. Ephemera is what fills our lives; when that ephemera becomes digital, we need to come to terms with our own privacy. Just because you can record and store things doesn’t mean you should.

And this comes to the heart of the matter, the second element of the desire to archive everything that irks me. The common statement is that we are producing more information now than ever before, and this information needs archiving. The reality is this: we are not producing “more information” per capita. We simply are not, I refuse to believe that. Medieval people swam in seas of information much as we do, it’s just that the vast majority of it was oral, or otherwise unstorable (for them). These are people who believed that reading itself was a group event, they couldn’t read without speaking aloud. (Don’t be so shy if you move your lips while reading; it’s a noble tradition!) Reading and listening were a pair. In our history we just stored more of that information in our brains and less of it in portable media. If you think surviving in a medieval village required no information, consider how many things you’d need to know how to do, how many separate “trades” a medieval woman would need to be an expert in just to feed, clothe, and sustain her family. Did she have “less” information? She certainly knew her neighbours better. She knew the details of other people’s lives, from start to finish. She knew her bible without ever having looked at one. Her wikipedia was inside her own head.

Today we have stopped using our brains for storage and using them for processing power instead. Not better or worse, just different. We use media to store our knowledge and information rather than remembering it. So of course there appears to be more information. Because we keep dumping it outside ourselves, and everyone’s doing it.

Not to say that a complete archive of everyone’s ephemera, every thought, detail, bit of reference material ever produced by a person throughout their life wouldn’t make interesting history. I think it would, but that’s not what we think libraries are really for. We do generally respect a certain level of privacy. It would be a neat project for someone out there to decide to archive absolutely everything about themselves for a year of their lives and submit that to an archive. Temperature, diet, thoughts, recordings of conversations, television programs watched, books read, everything. We you want to harvest everything on the web, then you might as well use all those security cameras out there to literally record everything that goes on, for ever, and store that in the library for future historians. Set up microphones on the street corners, in homes, in classrooms, submit recordings to the library. A complete record of food bought and consumed. Everything. That’s not what we consider “published”, no matter how public any of it is. We draw the line. Somehow if it’s in writing it’s fair game.

But that’s not what people are generally talking about when they talk about “archiving information”. I know this is true because the article ends with this:

“On the other hand, we’re producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry or some of the marginalia around the edges of the Sydney Olympics? I don’t think we necessarily do.”

There’s “good” information and then this other, random ephemera. I will bet you that Stephen Fry’s twitter feed will be of more interest to these future historians than a record of the official Sydney Olympics webpage. And that’s the other side of this argument.

This isn’t about preserving information for those sacred future historians. This is about making sure the future sees us the way we want to be seen; not mired in debates about Survivor, or writing stacks and stacks of Harry Potter slash fanfiction, or coming up with captions for LOLcats. Not twitter, because that is too silly, but serious websites, like the whitehouse’s. We’re trying to shape the way the future sees us, and we want to be seen in a particular light.

I object to that process.

Use of Video

Use of Video

I was launched awake at 4:30am this morning thinking about something I probably won’t be able to approach in the next six months, or even possibly not within the next year. Or ever. And yet.

I’m on a small team at work set on getting a brand new website. No facelift; something totally new. We’ve opened up the floodgates and are interested in anything we could do with a good web presence. Mostly I’m dreaming up more interactive things, which is a bit of a pipe dream. Library websites are usually not interactive on the level that I’m thinking about, but I’m still dreaming about it.

So this morning, out of nowhere, a very simple idea pings me and throws me out of bed. Virtual building. Videos. Navigating services and resources.

I’ve been talking about building a replica of our library in Second Life for some time. I want to do it less to get people interested in virtual worlds or in Second Life in particular, but more as a more interesting way to think and talk about the building and its purpose. I don’t want to lure people into Second Life (one of my pet peeves: people judging projects in Second Life by how many people who experience it stick around in-world). I’d rather they glean what they need from the experience and move forward in whatever way makes the most sense to them.

I want to have it more like an exhibit, a thing you look at and interact with in public places.

But then I was thinking: it would be dead easy, once you have such a replica build, to create short videos about how to get places. For instance: on our new website, we will probably have a section on reference services. Well, why not have a short video that shows you how to find the reference staff? It’s not exactly crystal clear in the building itself. Or how to find the technology centre, or the smart classroom, or the fiance learning centre. Or places for quiet study. Or places for group work. Bathrooms. Gosh, anything! Not a map: we already have those. But actually watching a person do it. Going down the stairs, turning right after the elevators, chosing the door on the left rather than on the right. Going up the stairs, turning left at the water fountain. The details that non-map people use to navigate their world.

Well, that’s not the idea that woke me up. The idea that woke me up was about videos that create themselves. I don’t know much about video, but I presume that’s not impossible; a video that is generated from pieces of existing video and strung together based on the circumstances of a particular set of variables. Does this take forever for a system to accomplish? What woke me up was this: wouldn’t it be awesome if you did a search for a book or journal, and the system showed you a video of an avatar walking up to the stacks and moving toward exactly where that book should be? If we had RFID on all the books this would be even more precise, but we should be able to roughly guess where a book (that isn’t checked out) ought to be. To the shelf, at least. And I got thinking about it because I was thinking about mobile devices, and having such a video play on a mobile device to help you navigate the stacks. A little bandwidth-heavy, but it was just a half-awake sort of thought.

Gift Economies and Librarian Blogs

Gift Economies and Librarian Blogs

I’ve been turning over the idea of gift economies and the internet for some time now. For me it started with Henry Jenkins’ keynote at Internet Research 8 in Vancouver, when he suggested that fans who produce popular product should be paid by the company that owns the copyright. My gut turned sideways and I nearly shouted it, NO. NO NO NO. It registered at the top of the horribly wrong meter.

The more I thought about it, and examined my violent gut reaction, I started to think that adding money to the equation goes against the natural economy of fandom cultures. I’m pretty firmly convinced that fandoms revolve around gift economies, where fans create product that other fans consume, and the consumers are required to pay back the gift by providing feedback, linking others to the product, engaging in commentary about the product, or other fandom behaviours. I hesitate to say it, but another payback activity is deference. I shouldn’t shy away from it. It’s true. There are some fans who are seen to give more to the community than any individual can properly pay back, and thus resentments and frustrations are born. This is exactly gift economy theory, so I’m fairly certain it fits.

So my own reaction at the idea of adding money to the mix is justified; it’s the wrong kind of economy. It would swing the balance. It would increase resentment a million fold, because the people who get paid for their fandom production would become completely unpayable by fandom standards, and would be seen as a stooge of the original producer. I sell out. No longer fully part of the community. Untrustable. No spreading the wealth; any fandom creation is a product of the community, with inspiration and ideas from the community, build on the scaffold of commentary and conversation, beta readers, donations of art, video, songs, fandom trends and ideas, and communal construction of character interpretation. How can one person gain reward from something that is, at its heart, entirely dependent on the community?

So that said, I think I’m seeing the same thing happening in the librarian blogosphere, and I find it interesting. The Annoyed Librarian kept an anonymous blog ranting about librarianship. It was funny and wry and I don’t remember it being too terribly controversial in its blogspot form. People might have disagreed with her approach, but it was just one anonymous blog. There are many more named blogs to read.

But then Library Journal moved the Annoyed Librarian over to their website, and paid her to write her rants. Now she’s official, she’s part of the machine, and getting paid to do it. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention to the blogspot blog and its comments, but I think there’s a marked difference in the kind of comments she gets.

A Selection:
Since I am an Annoyed Librarian too, do I get a cut of the profits?
Rehashing old posts is the best you can do? Couldn’t you have just said this in a comment on the original post? How about some original material? I guess the AL cheerleaders are happy so that’s all that matters.
If you like light and fluffy posts, you’re in the right place. Not much substance here so far.

Generally speaking, librarians don’t comment like this on non-profit blogs. Now that the Annoyed Librarian is being paid for her trouble, that changes things. Comments that won’t help: when her attempt at humour is criticized, the Annoyed Librarian says this:

I don’t need Comedy Central, I’ve got LJ paying me to write this stuff.

And, the post that prompted me to write this post:

Set a date, tell your overlordier, plan a big finale, whatever you like, but give it up. Soon. Because the joke’s been played, we’ve all been had, you’ve picked up a few pennies, and now the joke’s just going to get old. Fast. And you know I know you know that.

I want you to hit it and quit. Can you hit it and quit?

In a world where librarians get book deals and we actually do get paid to do the work we write about, I was a bit surprised to see what I’m used to seeing in fandoms happening in the librarian blog world. But maybe it’s not fandom that generates a gift economy; maybe it’s something inherent in online communities generally. (Could that be so?) Apparently, we librarian bloggers also understand our blogs to be gifts to the community rather than something that aught to be remunerated financially. People are feeling skimmed off for cash. The understanding seems to be: you wouldn’t exist without us. If you get paid for what you do, you’re using us for your own profit. And you will pay our price for that.

I wanted to think about it in terms of fandoms and fandom culture, but maybe it’s much broader than that.

What I learned (and thought about) in Copenhagen

What I learned (and thought about) in Copenhagen

I tried to think of a way to present what I learned via Internet Research 9 in Copenhagen, but I’m still heavily jet lagged. So I’m going to present it in discrete chunks.

Work and Play
There are certain ideas and words that trigger a very serious gut reaction in me. I really appreciate these conferences so I can sit with those feelings and talk with others about them to see if I need to fight with my gut or against it. One of those triggers went off during the pre-conference workshop when we talked about the terms “game”, “play”, “recreation”, and “leisure”.

First, game: this came up in the perennial (and yawn-inducing) question about whether or not Second Life is a game. In my opinion, Second Life is a game engine with the game pulled out, just like MOOs before them. But the term came up again. My answer is the same: no. It’s not a game.

“What’s wrong with play?”

No no no, “game” does not mean “play”, and “play” does not mean “game”. I have no objection to games, but turning all play into a game is a dangerous slide in terminology. I’ve read Julian Dibbell‘s fantastic book Play Money and I already know that there’s a difference between play and games. You may “play a game”, but play is much more than a game. A game has rules and outcomes, play can be just about anything that’s fun. Julian Dibbell notes that there are always elements of play in work, and those are the most productive times across the board. He also notes that there is a lot of work in games, so the classic allocation of “play” behaviour to games alone is a misnomer. No. Just because it’s play doesn’t make it a game. And that goes on with “leisure” and “recreation”. Limiting our days to “work” and “non-work/fun” portions makes my skin crawl. The only distinction there is that one is rewarded financially and (presumably) is not, and I’m not sure I’m ready to let capitalism dictate the basic terminology of my life. There are so many areas where I want to break down the false dichotomy between work and play for the sake of my own sanity, I just can’t get into a worldview where fun is a thing that happens when not working. I must back away slowly from that entire set of terminology.

But the conversation is important. Play has value in education, and needs to be understood that way. Working with social networks and technology on a full time (more than full time) basis, I run into a lot of people who have problems with people “playing” or having fun at work or in school. So one of my goals, added to all the others I already have, is to help people understand and accept the amazing value that play brings to our work and to academic success.

This isn’t about fighting work-life balance; I’m all for that. But I’m also all for letting your “play” life bleed into your work life and not deliberately holding back the most productive and creative parts of yourself for only one or the other. In a way, this is like the old blogging argument; a good blog, according to some, has one topic and sticks to it. This is “work”. Then there’s the rest of us, who blog about whatever’s going on and catches our interest, and thus lets it all blend together in a big creative pile. My current case in point: I “played” in Second Life for many hours to build Cancerland, which is ultimately expression of something so personal I was assigned an agent at work to help me manage the communication of it. But now it’s very much linked to my work life as well, as an experience, as an idea, and an example, and by turning my brain around to the idea that you can create experiential learning spaces that express information in amazingly effective ways. That’s valuable, in spite of the false distinctions of work and play.

Ubiquitous Computing
One of the conference’s keynotes involved a fascinating look at what a fully integrated city would look like; where the internet is a part of everything. I like this idea, and I need to spend more time considering it. Unshackle the world from computers themselves but hook them into the internet in million new ways. Walk through the world and stay online at the same time; overlay a google map on the world as you see it with your own eyes. One of the ideas that tweaked my imagination was the idea of using the city as your interface. I’m kind of already down that road in my thoughts about replica builds in Second Life and how the replica element of it allows us to provide layers of meaning into the interactivity and affordances; the idea of your city as interface takes that idea and turns it around. Being out in the world and playing an online game with your city. (Probably not Grand Theft Auto.) My first thought was this: how do we turn the library into a location for a ubiquitous computer game? How do we take students offline but keep them online? It’s an expensive proposition (maybe), but it’s something I’d like to keep thinking about. There are lo-tech ways to do it, and I want to try them.

In/Formal Learning
I realized during this conference that my true interest in education goes beyond just technology. My interest, at its heart, is in examining the many (many) means and methods of informal learning, and bringing them to formal learning. When people make the distinction between formal and informal learning there’s a big part of me that wants to shout: “Why are you making those two things so distinct?” The passion that’s so often present in spades in informal learning is what I want to see more often in formal settings.

The Future of Questions

The Future of Questions

I was asked recently to fill out a survey about the situation, goals, and ideas of “future library leaders”. One of the very first questions the survey asked was a true or false type thing; there was a statement and I was asked my opinion about it. The statement said something like this: “In the future, 100% of questions will be directed first at Google.” It was worded better than that, though.

I disagreed. I explained why, but now that I’ve answered this question, I want to elaborate on my answer, and why I’m positive that I’m right.

I don’t mean to imply that Google will become less important. If anything, it will probably become more important. It works. But I don’t think all questions will start there. I think we’re missing something really key.

While everyone loves Google and uses it, most people would prefer to ask their questions of real people, in digital form. In every online community of which I’m a part, there is this constant problem; new users “abusing” the group by picking their brains. On Feminist, the erudite community on livejournal, there were so many questions looking for help writing women’s studies papers that schoolwork-related questions were actually banned from the community. Similarly, on Academics Anon, another livejournal community, many, many questions are posted that are answered thus: “Google is your friend.” There is a near-constant conversation going on about how people don’t read and can’t they just google that citation question, and why does everyone expect us to answer all these silly questions that we’ve answered already 15000 times? The crankiness about it is one thing (and I understand it, in spite of being a librarian). The fact that anyone would rather face that kind of hostility and ask their question to a community of jaded academics (the basic premise of the community) rather than simply type the keywords of their question into google (how to cite a website, etc.) is telling.

In the last two days, as I’ve been preparing for Burning Life, the same thing is happening again. In order to get into the land set aside for Burning Life, you have to join a group. The chat related to that group is almost 99% basic questions that are all answered on Burning Life’s webpages, and the natives are getting very restless. Those webpages are actually very clear and well constructed, but when redirected to these pages, the question-askers are getting mightily upset, as if being asked to read a webpage is some kind of insult. I find this fascinating. They don’t want to read the webpage, even though they are told repeatedly that the answer to their question is there. They want to be told. They want their hands held. They want the personal touch. All digitally, of course.

So why is it that reference as a service is dying by this desire for personal communication is so prominent in online communities?

I think the key to it is trust. And it’s not that these new Burning Life folks trust the rest of us in the group as individuals. They trust that we went through this process already and know how to do it. They trust that we have expertise, and an unwillingness to share it with them offends them. The same is true in the feminist and academics community; they don’t come to us because they like us as people, or find us approachable. They come to us because they trust that we know what we’re talking about.

What makes this all the more confusing is that there’s that constant refrain out there about how you never know who you’re dealing with on the internet, but no one takes that too seriously in these cases. They don’t care if you’re really a dog. They only care that you know something about this very specific category of knowledge, and your participation in this forum provides that degree of trustworthiness.

How can libraries get themselves into that kind of category? I’m not sure. But I think clearly defining and expressing our particular expertise is part of it. The rest is an open question.

Orientation Video

Orientation Video

I’m proud to finally present one of my summer projects: University of Toronto Mississauga library’s Orientation Video, Going for Gold.


The Value in Replicas

The Value in Replicas

Jeremy and I have a recurring argument about replica builds. Well, it’s not an argument so much; mostly I agree with him. He does an excellent presentation describing his point that’s very convincing. There are a lot of replica builds in Second Life. And it’s not really a good thing.

By replicas I mean exact reproductions of real-world locations in Second Life. Spending significant money and time to reproduce, say, your campus down to the most minute detail. Jeremy’s argument is that the purpose behind these builds is primarily branding, and he questions the point of it. You branded a piece of Second Life by building your campus on it, but the campus in world is empty. So what was the point? He anticipates that most of these virtual campuses will start shutting down one by one as they fail to produce any recruitment or interest in the real life institution.

I agree with him, easily, that building a replica of your campus for the purposes of branding is a fairly pointless idea. The population of Second Life is not that big, given that it’s a global system. They claim to have over 14 million residents (at present), but only roughly 500K have logged in in the last 7 days, and to be honest I’ve rarely seen more than 60K on at any given time. Sure, by any human standards that’s a lot of people, but compare that to facebook: 90 million active users. Second Life is a small fish in a big internet; it’s filled with some tourists, some business people, some mavens who love building and coding, and a whole bunch of people who just like hanging out. The chances of any university administration having even a tiny minority of its students in Second Life is pretty minimal. The chances of any university administration having any prospective students in world is practically nil; remember that the minimum age requirement to log into Second Life is 18. I personally assumed that no students at my school have ever logged on until someone caught a glimpse of Second Life on a laptop in the library (so maybe there’s one). Putting things in Second Life to get attention of parents and prospective students simply won’t work. Whose attention are you going to get?

The best thing you can do in Second Life, the wisdom goes (and I don’t dispute it), is create something you can’t create in real life. Create impossible structures; the weather is always great and everyone can fly. Create a physical manifestation of a concept, an idea, a feeling. I’ve tried my hand at this and it has proved compelling. It works. It works and it’s unique, it’s using a tool to do something that breaks the barriers to which we’re accustomed. Doing something that you can’t do anywhere else; that’s the only way to make it worthwhile. There’s no point using the place as a chat room. Too much bandwidth, to expensive to maintain. So when you choose to do something, it needs to be worthwhile.

So replicas: where’s the value?

Same principles. Do something you can’t do in real life. What if you need to build the replica first in order to do that?

Example one:


Build a building in Second Life that doesn’t actually exist yet. Make a movie about it. If I were them, I’d probably use that build for presentations, or displays. Have a character running around inside it, doing a virtual tour, while you’re talking about it. Set up stations and let people log in and wander around through it. Make a movie of it without sound and display it on digital signage. You’re encouraging interest in something that doesn’t exist yet, allaying fears, answering questions, letting people feel like part of the process. What a fantastic idea.

But that’s not quite a replica, is it. It’s realistic, it’s real world, it’s abiding by real world physics and a literal plan, but it’s still something virtual (for now). You could do something similar with a renovation; make the soon-to-be real virtually. But what about things that really do exist?

The standard line does indeed run along branding lines; set up your campus, let people explore it. It’s not a bad idea, at its heart. But maybe it’s not enough to just recreate it. What if you recreate it, but add something impossible to it? Something real, something legitimate, but not something you’d ever get in real life?

One of my very favourite art projects was dotted around the streets of Toronto a few years ago. It was a sign in the shape of an ear, with a cell phone number on it. When you call it, you get a recording, someone telling you about a memory about the spot you’re standing on. It’s like a digital tour of the city, in personal stories. This is hard to do in real life, but relatively easy to do in person. What about a story around every corner? The collected stories of students on your campus, added to regularly. Add them in audio, text, pictures. Bring your campus to personal, legitimate, intimate life. People it not with avatars but with real stories, voices of real people, talking about what it’s like to be there, experiences. Moments of epiphany, stories about coffee with instructors, mentorship, enjoying the beauty of an autumn morning. Sounds of the street, random conversations. The options are really unlimited.

It’s not really so very far from the concept/feeling idea. You can use replicas in the service of those things, as the canvas on which you can build your masterpiece. But the masterpiece needs to be built; it’s not enough to just nail the canvas together. Don’t just brand; convey genuine, honest information. Use the tool to its fullest.

But who’s going to see it? Again, I think it’s something you demonstrate rather than expect people to stumble upon (though: if they do stumble on it, great!). Maybe you make movies; maybe you do something else with it that I can’t think of. Though I think it’s not unlikely that, once built, prospective students would jump in to see something full of stories and information from other students, especially if it grows every year. I imagine it would be a neat project for graduating students. Force number one to contend with: first year students are excited. They’re excited the moment they get that letter of acceptance. They want to pick their courses, meet students, ask questions, buy books. They want any scrap of advice or information they can get. They are keen. And yet for some reason we don’t do a heck of a lot to entertain that energy. We make them wait until September. For some of the less sexy but more useful services (like, say, reference, or interlibrary loan, or career services) that eager time where all information is absorbed with great glee, wouldn’t that be a great moment to express what is really available for them? Maybe they’re the audience, one way or another. And I can’t think of many other places where you could do it.

So I’ve come full circle with the replica build. On its own, not so interesting. But I can see it getting more interesting the more stories you add to it.

IBM Partitions SL: It Might Not Be a Bad Thing

IBM Partitions SL: It Might Not Be a Bad Thing

Jeremy and I fundamentally disagree about this, but I think this isn’t an entirely bad idea. The gist: IBM and Linden labs have teamed up to create an entirely protected space within Second Life where IBM employees can talk without being interrupted or overheard by other Second Life users. There is an argument in the virtual worlds sphere that holds that Second Life, or virtual worlds in general, are only any good if they’re entirely public. Locking off pieces will reduce creativity and is counterproductive, goes the train of thought.

To me, as long as you can bring objects in and out of locked spaces, I think this is a fantastic development for education. If IBM can lock off a portion of the world, and create new land within in it for their own use, that means educational institutions can do the same thing. I bet IBM will have a public portion (for PR) and a private portion (for work); this would be an excellent example to institutions, who could collaborate on a joint public zone, where all participant institutions could have a storefront (so to speak) for recruitment and public event purposes, and then a private area where their classrooms and sandboxes live, protected for the moment while they’re still in flux. There could also be a space in the public, shared display area to showcase excellent builds and projects created within their private zones. Additionally, in an ideal world, each institutions libraries would take charge of archiving projects and builds that, with permission of course, could be “loaned out” to other students/institutions for academic purposes. So if someone creates an excellent historical build that sits in display for a while and then moves to archives, another instructor could borrow it for a class, and have students from another institution wander through it for a week or two as part of their preparatory reading. Students should absolutely get credit for it, too.

Having a public area and a private area for students allows instructors to keep students in a protected area when required, but would also allow them to use Second Life as a virtual universe to explore at the same time; while many people are concerned about the wild west mentality that pervades some elements of Second Life, a private launch pad would allow students to find their feet before moving into the more diverse parts of the space. It would also put land use in the hands of the institution, which I think is a key part of creating coursework builds.

I just don’t think this kind of structure is possible given the current land organization and administration.

I would never have imagined that IBM enclosing space in a virtual world would ever seem like such a positive step forward for the rest of us, but it seems that way to me!

Is Librarianship a Profession?

Is Librarianship a Profession?

Just starting to follow a feisty discussion around the use of the term “librarian”, helped along by Rachel Singer Gordon’s excellent post on librarianship’s attitude toward library paraprofessionals here. I must bow to Dorothea, who breaks down the idea of “profession” and how librarianship fits in in her post here. A teaser:

Profession is monopoly labor protectionism, driving up the price of the Elect. End of story. All the training, all the oaths, all the conferences, all that other stuff amounts to pissing in a circle to mark territory, hoard resources (i.e. jobs and social status), and keep the unwashed out. Where an individual doing a particular kind of work can more or less swan about naming her own price, labor perceives no need for the trappings of a profession.

What a fascinating and powerful exchange.