Libraries and New Media

These are my rambling thoughts on a few of readings from over the past month.

First of all, after reading Illich, I was delighted to learn that my profession survives in his vision of a deschooled society:

The professional personnel needed for this network would be much more like custodians, museum guides, or reference librarians than like teachers.

As a librarian, I have heard every verse, chorus and variation of the “why do we need libraries when we have Google” song, but I believe that that protest has it exactly opposite: it’s the libraries (and librarians) that are exactly what’s needed in this information/media rich culture, and Illich sees this (after all “Reference Services” shows up twice in his list of approaches to a deschooled education). Finding one’s way among all the information on all the different media that are out there is difficult. I encounter students overwhelmed by information, not knowing how to evaluate information, etc. all the time. And a librarian is an information professional – they can point you in the way to go, can help you find the best information for your need, and the library structure (both physical and digital) can provide the access to what you need. Just the other day, a student I was helping in my office said to me “You know how like, long ago, librarians helped you find books and stuff? Well, I feel like you’re like that, but for the internet.” That was one of the proudest moments of my professional life so far.

New Media vs. Old Media

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I get just as frustrated with the reactionary “libraries should be only about books” idea that gets tossed around in library-land as well. This gets repeated most often by the past-president of ALA Michael Gorman. One of the things he said fairly recently in an article about the future of libraries was

“If you want to have game rooms and pingpong tables and God knows what — poker parties — fine, do it, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with libraries,” said Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Assn. “The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, ‘Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky’ — it seems ludicrous to me.”

He seems to be taking a jab at the recent development in many public libraries to check out video games and host gaming nights and Nicholas over at Information Games, sums up Gorman’s argument as “video games are not books and books are the real business of the library.” (That whole post is brilliant by the way, and is a great counter to Gorman’s reactionary bloviation.) In reading what Gorman said, I also thought about Turkle’s assertion that “Protest against video games carries a message about how people feel about computers in general.”

That got me thinking about some of the other readings for our seminar – Scott McCloud on comics, Bill Viola on video, and Sherry Turkle on video games. Three distinct forms of media. Libraries have eagerly embraced collecting graphic novels – they are, afterall, printed in books which we love and are familiar with – and while film and video had some early hiccups in the conversation about their place in library collections, now are collected eagerly and are some of the highest circulated items. The medium of video games just happens to be at the forefront of the discussion right now in the library world, and therefore it will bring out the “others, primarily book-oriented [that] claim the newer media are uncomfortable to use, expensive in time and money to acquire, difficult to administer, and require too much specialized knowledge and skill to be worth the trouble of learning to produce and use for educational purposes.” (That from an article in 1954 called “The Place of Newer Media in the Undergraduate Program” The Library Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 4 (Oct., 1954), pp. 358-373)

Brilliant Quote

There will always be new forms of media and the library will have to figure out a way to collect, organize and provide access to them. Just because “books on paper” have reigned supreme for the majority of the life of the modern library doesn’t mean that that is what we should be all about. Libraries are about accessing information, wherever that information resides. So now we have to try to figure out how to collect things that we traditionally haven’t collected – video games, e-books, web pages, Tweets, digitized info of all kinds.

I am the new library consultant to the communication studies department, which includes the best kept secret on campus: the film and digital media program. They teach about video games there. They PLAY video games there. Yet our library doesn’t collect video games. I’m formulating a plan to change this, by the way, in part as a result of the readings in this seminar and some other wonderfully thinky library blog posts I’ve read recently… I’m excited about the possibility of pushing our library forward into collecting new forms of media. I also excited to see what other new forms of media might be on the horizon that might throw a wrench into the library world yet again. Nicholas at Information Games says this near the end of his post:

As libraries become less and less about books and more and more about, well, whatever it is we are about, we are going to need innovative problem solvers who can deal with disruptive technologies.

That’s who I want to be.

circulating video games collection is shelved with the graphic novels

The schizo structure of research

I should be posting on the Sherry Turkle essay, since that is what we’re reading this week and I’m even presenting on it with Blaine today. But as I sat down yesterday morning and scanned through Twitter, a post by @wedaman caught my eye, about reading Engelbart to kindergarteners. (Which… fascinating, yes?) So I clicked through to his Twitter account and then to his blog to read a bit more and came across the post called “The Conduit Metaphor.”

In this post he mentions that in education, the metaphor of learning being a “conduit” (via which knowledge passes from the learned one to the unlearned students) is defunct. But that it too often is still in place in the Library/IT world. He says…

If you scratch the surface of your representative library or IT staff member you’ll find someone who thinks they are providing a passageway for people to get to things, whatever those things might be. Information. Computer Help. Study space. What have you. That the organization is a kind of storeroom of resources or services or skills, and its customers a kind of chaotic mass of generally needy and bemused people operating according to the principles of Brownian motion, needing to be channelled into tidy streams, have their velocity restrained somewhat, and their questions and needs regulated, prior to the provision of service unto them. The channels? Your service desks or call centers or liaison staff or webpages–windows or openings or . . . Conduits.

Relegating your community to people on the other other end of a conduit, and yourselves to the role (undeserved, really) of the Guardian of the Conduit, and your services to those that are simple enough that they can actually be conduited (if you will) is generally dehumanizing. Not only does it not really win you the hearts of your people, it blocks them from you. It re-enforces the black box reputation your library and IT organization should do everything to combat. It makes your work no fun. It closes down your opportunity to hear the needs of your community and to use those needs in a pedagogical way–to teach yourself what services you should actually provide. And it doesn’t allow people to do together what they are designed to do together, which is, in my humble opinion, to learn.

That passage hit me strongly, because as a librarian, I actively self-identify as a person whose passion is connecting people with the information they need. Have I been an unconscious guardian of the conduit? Am I one of Ted Nelson’s Priesthood, this time not of the computer, but of the information?

I reflected on this a bit and on how I interact with patrons both at the desk (in person and virtually) and with students in the classroom, and I thought back to my grad school days. In grad school I taught library instruction classes to English composition students and I had a very planned out and rigid way of doing so. I chose the topic with which I would demo the search. Then I did a whole lot of pre-searching so as to be able to show the students the perfect search with the perfect list of results that had exactly all the characteristics I wanted to be able to demonstrate.

I don’t do that now. I get students to volunteer their topics and we go off on a research rollercoaster – sometimes we start off on a search and it doesn’t net us many results, so we talk about how to broaden your search terms. Sometimes (actually, most of the time) the topic the student offers is really broad, so we think up strategies for narrowing the search. There are rabbit trails, there are dead ends. I always give time for students to do their own searching, because they will hit invariably hit these dead ends and I want to be there to walk them out of it.

I think some of the change in the way I interact with students in the classroom has come from experience and confidence in my teaching ability. But some of it has come with being willing to reveal to students that the research process most definitely can have the “schizo structure” that Bill Viola describes, and to walk with the students through the confusing maze of resources and in the end, hopefully, to see them get excited by the possibilities of research that today’s computer mediated has opened up to them.

A fuzzy picture of me teaching a class. But that's ok. Research is a fuzzy process.

In conclusion, here are a few tweets I received later yesterday morning from @wedaman about this topic:

Yes.

Enacting our games

The element that immediately jumped out at me in Laurel’s essay was “Enactment.”

It is interesting that the development of this theatrical genre has been concurrent with the blossoming of computer games as a popular form of entertainment, and I speculate that computer games have in some ways served as a model for it. In fact, it is in the areas that dramatic entertainment and human-computer activity are beginning to converge that pan-sensory representation is being most actively explored. When we examine that convergence, we can see ways in which human-computer activity has evolved, at least in part, as drama’s attempt to increase its sensory bandwidth, creating the technological siblings of the kind of participatory theatre described above.”

Perhaps this element resonated with me because I have next week’s Sherry Turkle essay on video gaming on my mind (which I do) but I also suspect it is because my household is pretty excited about Kinect (formerly known as Project Natal) from Xbox 360.

If you don’t know what that is, here’s a little video that explains it.

[youtube -4q74mRgj7E]

Kinect (and it’s soon-to-be lesser cousin the Wii, and I think there is some kind of Playstation thing coming up that is similar…) is all about sensory involvement. You interact with – you actually control – the computer via your senses. An the computer even also has senses – the facial recognition technology, for example, is a kind of seeing.

But I also think that Laurel’s section on enactment resonated with me because of the connections with McLuhan’s ideas about “sense ratios” and how they are changed when “any one sense or bodily or mental function is externalized in technological form.” How are we changed when we use regular gaming devices, and how much more so when we are using one of these full-body, motion sensing gaming systems?

Can kids use the iPad to program for the iPad?

When the iPad was released this past year, to much fanfare and millions of sales, a lot was said about how Alan Kay’s vision of the Dynabook had finally come to pass. (Well, some people said Jobs stole the idea from Kay, but most people just trumpeted that the future was finally here…)

Screen shot of Apple iPad in use

And yes, there are a lot of similarities between Kay’s Dynabook and Apple’s iPad. Portability, price, the uses for creative expression, etc. But there is one thing missing. Kay’s Dynabook had 12 year old novice programmers creating new programs for it! In fact, that was one of the best parts for me about Kay’s essay “Personal Dynamic Media”, that a kid was able to use the Dynabook to make it do things she wanted to do – in order to create the things she wanted to create.

The Dynabook prototype, pt. 3

Unfortunately, that is not the case with the iPad, as Wired magazine reported back in April. (By the way, the app that is mentioned in that article that was removed from the Apple Store is an app for Scratch, which looks like a really interesting program…)

Has Kay’s Dynabook been reincarnated by the iPad? I think the answer is no.

"We can and must design the media"

I figure that the more you know about computers… the better your imagination can flow between technicalities, can slide the parts together, can discern the shapes of what you would have these things do. The computer is not a limitless partner, but it is deeply versatile; to work with it we must understand what it can do, the options and the costs.

In 1996, as a college senior and needing 3 more hours of a science class to graduate, I took Computer Science 101. I was definitively a humanities person and all of the science classes I took in college were mostly fluff (i.e. the Worldview of Physics was another that I aced my freshman year), including this one. We didn’t learn any programming that I can remember, which I definitely regret now. All I can remember was learning Microsoft office software and how to navigate around a Windows 95 operating system. The one skill that I took away from the class was the last unit, which was the basics of HTML. I chose to create the web page for my major, Comparative Literature, as my final project in the class. (This was back in the day that they would let students do something like this…)

(An aside: it looks like the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive doesn’t go quite far back enough to get that first iteration of that page, but if you look at the earliest version from 1998, and imagine it in yellows and reds with some stylin’ graphical buttons for the links, you’ll get the idea I was going for…)

HTML_Editor_Syntax

I didn’t do much web page creation again until 2001, when I went overseas and created a Geocities (RIP) page in order to communicate with my family and friends. It didn’t look that much different from the pages I had originally created for my department. My sister knew a little more code, so helped me spiff the pages up a little better. However, this page got quickly cast aside a year or so later, when I discovered blogging and signed up for a blogger/blogspot account. I wanted a quick and easy way to efficiently communicate with my family and friends and blogging was IT! And it even connected me with people who weren’t my family or friends but who were interested in what I was doing overseas.

In this new networked world, however, I really wanted to make my blog look and feel like my own, so I jumped head first into the code editor on blogspot and started poking around. At this point, 6 years after my first experience with HTML, it had changed a ton. It was at this point that I fell into the world of CSS – and then when I eventually switched up my blog from Blogger to Moveable Type to WordPress, I started exploring PHP as well. I threw myself into bigger web design projects because each project led me to new challenges and new learning experiences. And now, part of my job even includes the design of online learning experiences. (i.e. my dream job…)

These days, my web designing efforts look VERY different from my original creations, and for the most part, aside from that original unit on beginning HTML, it has all been self taught. In all of it, I have used the computer: creating, uploading, exploring, troubleshooting, tinkering, and most of all, LEARNING. Learning about what computers can do, and what I can do with computers. I was “motivated” and “let loose in a wonderful place” like Nelson states.

In looking back on my experience with computers, particularly in my experiments in web design, it resonates deeply with Ted Nelson’s manifesto: you can and must understand computers NOW. I had ideas to communicate and people to connect to and I wanted to “design my own media” as Nelson puts it. And computers were the tools that made it possible to dream how to accomplish that.

And they are the tools that even now are helping us design the media and the curriculum for this networked faculty seminar we are currently participating in.