Technology: The Middle Way (part 2) & Other Ephemera

A while back, I posted some thoughts about the schism that seems to exist between tech-inclined and non-tech-inclined folks in libraries.  This schism often seems to develop down disciplinary borders, which I think is a bad deal for those of us who love and value the humanities.  Anyway, my thoughts ran along the lines of: we need a healthy middle class here.  A class of interpreters, with one foot in the technology world and one foot in the world of the humanities or social sciences or wherever.  Gung-ho evangelists are great (and we need them!) and so are old-school print-only bibliographers (we need them too!)  But we really also need a lot of people who live in the  middle ground, to pass information back and forth and hold things together.

That said, some of the findings of the 2007 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology interesting.  Of the thousands of undergrad students interviewed, polled, and surveyed, 59.3 % said they preferred “moderate information technology” in their courses.  Only 2.8% preferred exclusive IT (and only 2.0% preferred no IT at all.)  Boiled down, students essentially said that they like IT when it’s used sensibly, by teachers who know what they’re doing.  They like the convenience of getting their syllabus and course readings in their CMS, but they don’t necessarily want to spend time in Facebook talking to their teachers.  (Worse luck for those of us interested in leveraging Facebook for library instruction.)  They also said that instructors sometimes overestimate the students’ ability with technology, and/or their access to it.

In other words, students apply common-sense outcomes analysis to IT in education:  does this help me do what I need to do?  Does it save me time?  Is it convenient to use?  This shouldn’t be surprising to learn, but it’s good to remember when we’re working on developing new services.  What did Ranganathan say–Save The Reader’s Time? 

In other news, I had a moment of wonderful…something the other day as I came into work.  I’m not sure what to call it.  I walked past the newspapers posted by the Library’s front door, and saw coverage of the protests in Burma.  Horrible stuff, but one side note was that much of the information we’re getting here in the West is thanks to individuals’ cell phones and occasional Internet access.  I was thinking about that–the potential for technology to bring us together and share information in positive ways–when I walked into the building.  The student ahead of me (a young man) held the door for an older woman coming out.  It was a small gesture, but totally typical of our students.  They’re casually polite, generally tolerant, and very patient with the bureaucracies of a large, flawed public institution.  Basically, they’re good kids.  There was something about that juxtaposition–the nonviolent protestors, the resourceful technologists, the easygoing generosity–that made me hopeful that we’ll do better in the future than we have to date.

Bricks and mortar

What with my job’s usual emphasis on the electronic and digital rather than (or as well as, at least) the physical, it’s nice to spend a few minutes enjoying the beauty of actual brick-and-mortar libraries, and paper-and-b0ard books.  It’s fitting, though, that these are digital images.  😉

The well-appointed library is one of the cornerstones of a civilized society.

And there’s even an image of the North Reading Room here at UC Berkeley!  What a lovely, lofty place it is.

New post to my reference blog

I keep track of reference questions I’m asked on the Moffitt (humanities & social sciences) and Environmental Design (architecture, city planning, landscape architecture) desks at my other blog.  It finally occurred to me that it might be a good idea to crosspost to this blog when I post there.

So, if you’re interested in seeing what kind of questions get asked on the UC Berkeley campus, head over here and check them out.

On-shelf and online

Thanks to a recent post on web4lib, I came across this blog post by Karen Coyle:

I find myself in a dilemma when I go to the library, because I am cut off from my “place of work.” I go into the stacks, perhaps with a scribbled note containing a call number, and I stand in front of shelves with fewer capabilities than I have in my own home office. If I don’t find the book I want I can’t check to see if I wrote the call number correctly; I can’t look to see if there’s a “second best” book that I’d like; I can’t determine if there’s another area of the stacks where I might find something else I’d like to read; and I can’t search within the text of the bound volumes in front of me, even if digitized versions do happen to be available on-line. I stand there wishing I could go on-line.

Essentially, going into the library means leaving behind my ability to find. Yes, there are a few computers in the stacks, but they are too far away to make it possible to be usefully on-line and at the shelf at the same time.

Libraries made a great effort to get on-line and to reach out to users beyond their walls. What we haven’t done, however, is to combine the on-shelf and on-line resources in a useful way.

Very interesting points, I think. Especially when combined with the recent news that Apple is partnering with Starbucks to launch a wireless iTunes store. Basically, if you have a new wireless iPod, iPhone, or Apple laptop with wireless and iTunes, they’ll sniff out the wireless network at any nearby Starbucks. They’ll then tell you what music is playing in the Starbucks, and what the last 10 songs were, among other things. Listeners’ advisory service, over wireless, at point of need. Simple and beautiful (and likely to be profitable.)

What could libraries do to offer a similar service? Well, we could RFID our books (or chip them somehow so a wireless device could sniff them. This would make lost book searches a lot simpler–in fact, it could make stacks maps unnecessary for anyone with a wireless device, since they could just plug in which book they want, and the sniffer could lead them there. Okay, that’s way out there.) With basic RFID or some other electronic identification of print books on the shelf, the library user could then stand in the stacks and see right away:

  • where the book is (misshelved two shelves up? on a sorting cart an aisle over?)
  • reviews of the book (links to web or licensed library content, via Amazon or Lexis-Nexis or whoever)
  • suggestions for related books (classification numbers, subject headings, keywords–possibly assigned by other users)
  • cover art (so s/he can spot the book on the shelf, or appreciate the beautiful dust jacket that was removed for library processing)
  • IM with the librarians, in case the research topic has changed somewhere between the OPAC and the shelf

And probably a lot more.

There are a lot of ways we could be squeezing our stacks and computers closer together, without detriment to the books. Of course, we’d need to set up some infrastructure first–RFID or another identification system for books, strong wireless, an information standard that would talk to students’ phones, iPods, Kindles (!), and PDAs…not to mention a user-oriented website and catalog that allows comments and tagging…

I’ve created a new category for posts like this, called “blue-sky.” 🙂

New York Times is offering online course content.

Courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The New York Times today began to pair its articles, multimedia offerings, and even its reporters with faculty-created course material from about a dozen institutions, letting professors use the new resource for both credit-bearing and continuing-education courses. The project puts the newspaper’s Knowledge Network on an interactive Web platform called Epsilen Environment, developed at Purdue and Indiana Universities. Epsilen works like an academic version of Facebook, says Felice Nudelman, director of education at the newspaper. “Faculty members can put up profiles, including résumés and important papers, and work they would like reviewed by their peers,” she says. “They can form working groups around topics of common interest.” They can also develop courses around those topics, and students at different universities will have the chance to participate. Mount Holyoke College, for instance, is developing course work around the art and craft of film; Northern Kentucky University is creating a series of studies on women and entrepeneurship. The cost for universities to participate varies, Ms. Nudelman says, but can be as low as $1 per student per year.­—Josh Fischman