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What I learned about Librarianship from the Signage on the Underground

What I learned about Librarianship from the Signage on the Underground

As a preface: I can get lost anywhere. I have no sense of cardinal points, I am a daydreamer and don’t pay attention to where I’m going most of the time, I can’t follow directions very well, and I struggle to make a visual connection between what I see on a map and what I see in front of me. I still regularly get lost in cities I’ve lived in for years. Being lost is a kind of default state for me. So, as you can imagine, visiting foreign city comes along with a bit anxiety for me. I know I will get lost. I do what I can ahead of time to avoid the worst of it, but it’s bound to happen. It always does.

So I was extremely surprised, and delighted, to discover that the one place I never once felt lost inside of was London’s underground transit system.

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The London Underground is a rabbit warren of tunnels, and not just the ones that carry the trains. Because each line was originally built privately by a separate company, designed to work independently and sometimes in competition with each other, they were never meant to interact particularly smoothly or efficiently. At points, switching from one line to another, you might walk 10-15 minutes underground, turning this way and that with the crowd, going up and down stairs, and generally getting utterly spun around. If I were to get lost and feel anxious anywhere, you would think, it would be there. But never: not even once.

The degree to which I felt no anxiety in a tube station became a notable thing. Once I saw the roundel of the Underground anywhere, I immediately relaxed, because I knew it would easily and gently take me where I meant to go. So I started to pay attention to why I felt so confident anywhere near the Tube.

It’s the signage.

This is what the experience is like: you walk into a station, and you make your first decision: which line are you looking for? My home station was Victoria, which has three lines to choose from. Left for the Victoria line, or right Circle or District? That’s the one bit that’s easy to remember! I want the Victoria line today, so I go left. I don’t pause to think about it; the directions are clear. A few feet down, I get a confirmation: yep, this is the right way to the Victoria line. Keep walking. And stick to the right if you’re not going stand on the escalator, btw. Phew! Great! I can do that! I didn’t take a wrong turn! At the bottom of the escalator, the signs continue to direct me: yep, this way to Victoria line. Great! Still not lost!

At this point, feeling confident about decision one, I start thinking about my next steps. I want to go north on the Victoria line. I want to go up to Euston to switch lines. I follow the signs up and down stairs. I follow the signs left and right. Do you want to go this way? the signs ask me. Then go left up here. Yes, there. Well done, you! Go left! Look at that, there’s Euston on the sign! I’m in the right place!

Once I’m on the platform, I can see from every direction that I’ve done everything right. Even though I’m a tourist with no sense of direction, and only the bare minimum of understanding where my journey will take me, I have managed to get from the front doors of the station all the way down to the platform without pausing to check a map, without stalling with hesitation or sudden panic that I’ve taken a wrong turn, and without making it obvious to anyone that I’ve never been inside this station before. The London Underground only gives you the information you need at any given point to make a single decision. It guides you all the way to your landing place so gently you barely notice it’s happening.

Arriving at a new stop on the Tube, they make the experience of getting out very, very simple.  The signage tells you there’s only one way out.

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This may or may not actually be the case, but having only one way out means you just follow the arrows. This way will take you out. Just follow me. It entire experience was so easy, so simple, so clear, it was practically instant: I was in love.

When I got home I looked up the documentation about Tube signage. Obviously nothing like that could happen by accident. Someone was doing this on purpose, they were pacing out these spaces, simplifying complicated underground walkways and intersections, and looking for points of confusion, then adding the signage required to keep people anxiety-free and moving forward. London Transport calls these “decision points”.

Decision points are the places inside the station where you need to decide what your next step in your journey needs to be. These decisions are so small and discreet, so absolute, that you can make while walking. London Tube stations are busy places, and people stopping to hesitate would create pedestrian traffic jams and angry commuters. They need passengers to make quick, accurate, confident decisions so that their journey is smooth and confusion-free. So they break down the process of the journey, and plot every decision required in every station and every corridor, tunnel, and stairwell, wonky passage, corner, and escalator, and then add the information to the walls to make those decisions happen quickly and easily. They are outrageously successful at this.

The Underground administrators have no idea what my journey is, but they know I have one, and that I need help along the way. Rather than try to give me advice about specifically how to get to Euston station, they just guide me there step by step, decision by decision.

Librarians have a tendency to behave as if patrons walk through the door needing to know practically everything about their journey before they take their first step. We haul out the maps, give advice about the weather and what footwear they need for the first half, and trace the entire experience out before they get past the turnstile. We may never see that patron again; we’d better make sure they’re well-prepared. For each and every leg of the journey. Then we leave them to their own devices, unless they want to seek us out again. What if we didn’t do that? What if we focused on reducing confusion and anxiety if all of our patron interactions by guiding their decisions in small pieces, manageable ones, rather than infodumping right at the start?

A research process is very much like a journey, with decision points along the way. What if all we focused on at any given point (on a website, in a reference interview, in a  physical library, inside a database) is getting to the next decision point? We don’t know what every research process is going to lead to, but everyone hits roughly the same points along the way, regardless of their final destination. If we hold back, and guide people through gently, one decision at a time, maybe patrons will look up at the end of the journey and say, “Well, that was easy.” That, it seems to me, would be ideal.

Of Horseless Carriages

Of Horseless Carriages

Tablets are interesting. I suspect they are an invention of a culture that thinks of itself as mobile but actually isn’t; North America is more of a walk-and-sit culture, which wants portable more than it wants truly mobile. But what’s especially interesting about tablets is how hard it is for us to shift away from thinking about them as computers (where  “computer” means a screen that sits in front of a keyboard on a table).

I’ve been experimenting with hooking up a bluetooth keyboard to my ipad. I’ve resisted doing that for the longest time, because I don’t like to fall into the horseless carriage chasm. I don’t want to think about a tablet as a computer; it’s a different beast. It’s not a mini workstation, and I don’t want to turn it into one. But because I’m leaving on holiday next week, and because I’m currently working on a writing-intensive project, I started thinking about how I could use my ipad as a real writing tool.

I think a software keyboard is fine most of the time. When I’m not doing serious writing (upwards of 2k in a sitting), I have no problem using a software keyboard exclusively. But a writing project is a writing project, and for that many words, I’m fastest and most comfortable with a keyboard. So I broke down and worked out how to connect a keyboard to the thing. I took it out for a spin one day, keyboard and ipad packed up in a purse, and set it up in a pub, in a coffee shop, and even on a bus. I absolutely loved it. I loved it more than I expected to. It was great. I’ve got the right apps to make it work, they all sync back up with my computer. It’s like a remote port of my computer; the whole project resides on my laptop, but I can take a comfortable keyboard and just the pieces I’m working on out with me into the world and work on them wherever I happen to be. Scene by scene, nothing else. It’s nice.

As I get closer to turning my ipad into a mini computer, I’m getting more sensitive about the differences between those two, conceptually. I don’t have a keyboard that’s part of an ipad case. My keyboard is a second thing I carry with me. That might seem awkward or odd, or at least less than ideal, I realize. But writing is a singular activity for me, and not one I’m always planning to do when I stick my ipad in my purse. I don’t want my ipad to always be connected to a keyboard; sometimes I just want to read on it. So I’d rather have a separate keyboard and keep the slim ipad case I’ve had since I first bought it. I noticed, when looking up reviews of ipad keyboards, that a separate keyboard is considered a disadvantage. Too much to carry, I guess, and it’s considered a problem that the keyboard doesn’t contain some kind of stand to make the ipad sit up like a proper screen.

That it’s not turning an ipad into a mini laptop.

Horseless carriage: there it is, isn’t it. If you’re going to have a keyboard, your ipad is automatically turning into a workstation. Why do we want an ipad to be a mini laptop? It’s not one. It doesn’t need to be one. A keyboard doesn’t need to turn it into one, either.

I tried working with my ipad up close to the keyboard, like a monitor, as if they were connected; it wasn’t very comfortable. So I moved it. I moved several inches back, where it’s easier to look at. I shifted it over to the left when my food arrived so I could read what I’d done over dinner. And then, finally, after far too long, I realized I could lay my ipad flat on the table, like a pad of paper, and type on my keyboard even though there was no screen in front of me. Because there doesn’t need to be one. I’m working with a device that’s more like a pad of paper than a laptop, and typing with the screen lying flat next to me actually works quite well.

Though I suspect it looks a bit strange to passersby if I’m sitting in a café typing furiously into a keyboard with no screen in front of me. But it feels great. And it made me realize that a keyboard isn’t the bottom half of a laptop. It’s just an input device I’ve come to feel very comfortable with. That’s all.

Web Apps to Watch

Web Apps to Watch

Here’s a short list of my current favourite and frequently-used web apps.

Prezi
My current darling, Prezi, is probably best understood as a slick replacement for powerpoint, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a cross between a mind-mapping tool, presentation software, an interactive flash embed for a website, and a great way to present a whole mash of youtube videos in one simple document. Rather than flipping slides, you zoom from one element of the presentation canvas to the next. Perhaps what I like best about Prezi is the way it makes use of depth as well as height and width; your content can hide in small text, visible to the audience only when it’s turn comes along the path. Working in Prezi makes the web feel like infinite space rather than a simple text box or just the space within a monitor. I’ve taken to not only presenting with Prezi, but also creating presentations to add to our website and throwing ideas out onto a canvas to construct ideas and make plans (even when I have no intention of presenting it).

Prezi has an educational license, making it freely available to those of us in higher ed.

Crocodoc

I feel like I’ve been looking for this web app for most of my life. Crocodoc lets you upload a pdf and mark it up. It has a nice set of tools; sticky notes, drawing tools, highlighters, text. You can share the URL and let others mark up the pdf with you, or download the marked up version and have a permanent, printable copy of your commentary. Simple, incredibly useful. Crocodoc has actually been an answer to reference questions at our library. Can you mark up a pdf document without paying for Adobe? Yes, you can.

Screenjelly and Screentoaster

In general, I’m not a big fan of the screencast. It focuses our attention on how-tos and distracts us from the deeper issues of any tool. However, there are times when it’s a heck of a lot easier to demonstrate how to accomplish a task with software rather than trying desperately to paint a picture with words. And if you’re going to do it, do it fast. Screenjelly has pushed me in my “quick and dirty” thinking; if you’re going to do video (which surely dates itself instantly), make it disposable. Don’t spend hours on it! Do it, post it, move on. Let it fulfill its purpose right this moment, and don’t expect it to be perfect. I like this attitude and this embrace of the ephemeral. And thus, Screenjelly is my friend. Screenjelly records what’s on your screen (and optionally records whatever you have to say about it) for a maximum of three minutes. Then it gives you the option to embed the video, just like a youtube video. In fullscreen mode, your video is sharp, crisp, and actually looks as if it’s your own computer, not a video recording. Screenjelly is surely the quickest way to show someone how to do that one little thing they’re struggling to do. Custom videos, made on demand! That’s music to my ears.

If you need something a little fancier than what Screenjelly can do for you, you can try Screentoaster. Screentoaster doesn’t have a time limit, it lets you choose a segment of your screen to record, and it will record and superimpose live video from your webcam into the bottom right of the video. So not only can your audience hear you explaining how to do something on a website, they can see you while you tell them!

These services are just amazing. And free! Outrageous!

Speak slowly, Scientists Warn

Speak slowly, Scientists Warn

(GNN)– Rapid-fire news from conversation with friends or too many stories from newspapers could numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering, scientists say.

Scientists say updates from friends and family, let alone media like printed text, are often too quick for the brain to fully digest.

New findings show that the streams of information provided by newspapers, street signs, and conversation with others are too fast for the brain’s “moral compass” to process and could harm young people’s emotional development.

Before the brain can fully digest the anguish and suffering of a story, it is being bombarded by the next bit of information or update from one’s mother, according to a University of Southern Suburbia study.

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” said researcher Mary Helen Scaremonger-Yang.

The report, published next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition, which tries to update itself as slowly as possible because of these findings, studied how volunteers responded to real-life stories chosen to stimulate admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain. iReport.com: Growing pains for the conversational art?

Brain scans showed humans can process and respond very quickly to signs of physical pain in others, but took longer to show admiration of compassion.

“For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and refection,” said Scaremonger-Yang.

She said the study raises questions about the emotional cost, particularly for young people, of heavy reliance on a torrent of news snippets delivered via vocal conversation and text-based sources such as newspaper headlines and posters in shop windows.

She said: “We need to understand how social experience shapes interactions between the body and mind, to produce citizens with a strong moral compass.”

USS sociologist Beamish Boy said the study raised more concerns over fast-moving lives than the conversational-based environment.

“In a culture in which violence and suffering becomes an endless show, be it in a play, politics, or merely your means of employment, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradually sets in.”

Research leader Tony Dammitall, director of USS’s Brain and Creativity Institute, said the findings stressed the need for slower delivery of the news and conversation, and highlighted the importance of slow-burn emotions like admiration.

Dammitall cited the example of French Absolutist Louis XIV, who says he was inspired by his father, to show how admiration can be key to cultural success.

“We actually separate the good from the bad in great part thanks to the feeling of admiration. It’s a deep physiological reaction that’s very important to define our humanity.”

Conversation, which allows users to swap messages and use their hands to emphasize a point often in as little as a single word at a time, is largely seen as a solution to information overload, rather than a cause of it.

This function, it is said, “means you can step in and out of the flow of information as it suits you and it never queues up with increasing demand of your attention. You can just stop and ask someone if you want to know what’s going on. No pressure.”

(In response to this.) Ahem.

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.

Binding Arbitration

Binding Arbitration

A morning conversation between me and Jason:

Rochelle: i am getting whacked in the face with a tail
Jason: check the contract. that’s a valid use of tail
Rochelle: hehe
Rochelle: he is sitting on my stomach
Jason: section 231b, subsection 13…
Jason: territorial rights and duties at dawn
Rochelle: so that’s where it is
Jason: bloody right. we got a grievance issue going on here
Jason: someone’s disputing my right of water bottle squirtage
Rochelle: oh dear
Rochelle: when does the lawyer arrive?
Jason: na
Jason: we’re in binding arbitration
Jason: locked in the same condo until we can work it out
Jason: could take years
Rochelle: hehehehe

7 things you probably didn’t know about me

7 things you probably didn’t know about me

The rules:

1. Link to your original tagger(s) and list these rules in your post.
2. Share seven facts about yourself in the post.
3. Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names.
4. Let them know they’ve been tagged.

I was tagged by Catspaw.

1. Everyone thinks my favourite colour is pink, because I have a pink camera, a pink phone, a pink ipod shuffle, and a violently pink raincoat. My favourite colour is actually yellow.

2. When I was small, I used to put bowls on my head. No one is sure why, but I used to want a bowl on my head while watching sesame street. Many of my childhood pictures feature these plastic bowls.

3. When I was in my first year undergrad, I used to mock a friend of mine who had a mac. I told her how much better my PC was. I am ashamed of myself.

4. I only made it to city track and field in high school once, but I won first place in my event. It was shot put.

5. My earliest memory is being suspended in the air in front of a large brick planter. The planter was so tall I could just barely see over it. But I could bounce, and while bouncing I could see a blurry greenness beyond the brick. This brought me great joy. That planter is in my parents’ backyard, and doesn’t even come up to my knee now. But they used to put the jolly jumper in front of it.

6. I’ve never consciously eaten cottage cheese. I have no idea what it tastes like.

7. I like the smell of concrete stairwells, that sort of rockish sort of smell. My cat’s unscented litter smells like that, so I really like pouring out new cat litter. Is that odd?

I tag Jeremy, Dorothea, Emma, Box_Nine, Erica G, Chrys, and Rob.