Tag Archives: libraries

Library Technology Conference 2014

The program notes aren’t up yet, and my own notes/tweets/memories were erratic. If you were looking for a detailed reconstruction of the conference, I will be forced to crush your hopes utterly.

If this is March, there’s a Library Technology Conference, which was held on March 19 and 20 this year. I had a fine time overall, although I was disappointed that a session I’d really wanted to attend was canceled. The mysteries of library system developments will remain mysteries for now, it seems.

Each day began with a keynote speaker. Both speakers covered several topics, but I seem to have fixated on one or two for either of them, with the rest of what they spoke about evaporating from memory. What I remember from the first day’s speaker, Mita Williams, were the photos she showed us of a library in Denmark (I think it was Denmark) that has no staff and an academic library that was mainly just tables so that the students could use WiFi. She also talked about the idea of libraries as potential makerspaces. That sounded intriguing, and certainly more lively than empty computerized rooms, and I’m curious to see how that idea plays out in actual libraries.

The second keynote speaker, Barbara Fister, spoke in part about how libraries need to be less modest about their contributions to society. Not that this is a universal problem; she’d found one mission statement that just cries out to be on T-shirts and tote bags: “The purpose of the library is to preserve the integrity of civilization.” 😀 But she’d looked at several library mission statements and many of them were full of passive verbs like provide and support. I’m listening to this, thinking, aren’t those traditionally “feminine” roles? And isn’t librarianship one of the traditionally “female-dominated” professions? Hmm. I want to hear this speech again; I know there was a lot more interesting stuff than the snippet I’ve just mentioned, but I’ve forgotten so many of the details already.

At times, it felt like there were two parallel conferences going on. Call them the Patron Data Privacy Conference and the Patron Data Analytics Conference, if you will. I spent a fair chunk of the conference on Twitter, since attendees were live-tweeting sessions. At one point, several people were tweeting about preserving patron privacy. They tweeted about making private browsing the default for public library computers, securing the WiFi, avoiding adding social media sharing buttons to library websites, and resisting the gather-data-on-students trend. While I was reading all this, I was attending a session on collecting data on user behaviors so that librarians could adapt their websites to make them easier for patrons to navigate. The two “sides” both have good points. Even if a library is committed to preserving patron privacy, the library’s software may be allowing third parties access to patron data. At the same time, I admired what this presenter was showing us: a library website that can tell that a search has failed and that offers suggestions to the patron about what to do next. It can do this because it “watches” what the patron was doing and “recognizes” that the patron was searching for a journal article as if it were a book. So, reduce the amount of information gathered in the interests of preserving patron privacy? Or continue to gather as much patron data as possible to improve services and prove to higher-ups that patrons value and use the library?

And then there were the little things. Everyone got a nice reusable bag and a water bottle that folds flat when empty. Macalester is attempting to get to zero trash by 2020, and they’re well on their way. They banned sales of bottled water a few years ago (thus the water bottles in the goody bags), and all the plates, cups, plasticware, napkins, and so on was compostable. Impressive. There was an opportunity to play a bit with Google Glass, but I decided I was running out of energy to stand in line, so this will have to wait for a future opportunity. Also, I am getting way too old to spend a day in auditorium seating. Or perhaps I’ve been spoiled by ergonomic desk chairs at home and at work. You’d think all the time I spend in cafés would keep me in condition for rigid one-size-fits-all seating, but no. Ow. 😦 But slightly stiff muscles aside, it was an excellent conference, and I look forward to seeing what will be offered next year.

Strange serendipity

Back when computers began replacing card catalogs in libraries, people complained. One entire genre of complaints I remember was that there would be no more serendipitous discoveries, the ones that come from flipping through a card catalog just to see what comes up, and maybe finding a fantastic book that way. After all, with computers, you just put in your keywords, hit ENTER, and if the search is successful, you’re taken straight to the entry you were looking for. If it doesn’t work, you usually get an error message, not a fun alternative. Even when you browse a library catalog on a computer, you’re still scrolling through entries page by page, which just isn’t the same thing as skipping through a drawer chunk by chunk of cards.

Perhaps the fears were unfounded. I have had a serendipitous discovery this evening using Amazon.com’s search engine. Amazon is no library—wait, they’re lending e-books…no, let’s not get into that right now—but searching involves keywords, just like with library catalogs.

Here’s what happened. I like Bigelow’s White Chocolate Obsession tea. I must not be the only person who likes it, because Bigelow hasn’t discontinued it, but I’m not sure that many people who live near me like it, because I haven’t found it in my local stores for quite a while. So I’ve taken to ordering a case (6 boxes) of it every now and then from Amazon. I’m down to my last box, so I went to their website and started my search. Ever-helpful, Amazon tried to guess what I wanted:Amazon.com search suggestionsI stared at it blankly for several seconds, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. It was the second suggestion (“white chocolate obsession barbie in Grocery”) that really threw me, because the tea should be in Grocery. Had the Amazon search engine seriously glitched or was this some odd promotion by Bigelow? I finally followed one of the Barbie links through:

Amazon.com listing for White Chocolate Obsession Barbie
Not tea. Most definitely not tea. And it’s in Toys & Games, not Grocery. (Like you’re going to play with an $899 Barbie doll? Yeah, right.) But to everyone who fretted that computers meant that there would never be unplanned fortuitous discoveries ever again: that search provided me with amusement far out of proportion to the effort I put into it!

I’m going to go order the tea now.


That’s not a great picture of the doll. If you’re curious, a much better photograph and a description may be found at the Barbie Collector website. Apparently it even smells like chocolate.

Library redux

I made it over to my newly-remodeled library yesterday, the Merriam Park branch of the St. Paul Public Library. I didn’t have time for a long visit, but I did get to wander around and check out the most obvious changes. I wasn’t organized enough to take pictures either, but the truly curious can gaze at the St. Paul Public Library’s photos.

While you can still see the basics of the old layout—the stacks are still mostly where they always were and some of the old furniture is still in use—the new layout is more open. The self-checkout computers were moved from the circulation desk to their own little island. This makes sense as the circ desk itself seems to have been trimmed down a bit and turned into the reference desk, which means reference is now closer to the front door and more obvious. The old reference desk has been magically transformed into a circle of cushy chairs. I’m happy to see cushy chairs—I’m sure the library had comfy chairs somewhere before the remodel, but most of my memories are of sitting at tables to work on my computer in chairs that were anything but “cushy” or “comfy.” And some of the chairs have cup holders—I take it that means I can bring beverages into the library? Another change: a new feature for those of us who haul our own computers, tablets, etc. to the library rather than use theirs. There’s a whole table for laptop users, complete with electric outlets and a privacy screen. Please let it be low enough that I can use it without needing to bring a booster seat with me.

The library is planning to celebrate the reopening next Saturday with a party featuring “live music and chickens.” I did have to read that a couple of times before it sank in. I may have to stop by just to see what the connection is between chickens and remodeled libraries. I suppose it’s too much to hope that I’ll be able to bring home a few freshly-laid eggs.

So I’m deliriously happy about all this, right? Yes and no. I like all the improvements I’ve seen. This branch deserved a face-lift and it got a good one. I plan to try out that new laptop table sometime and sit in a cushy chair. But while you can ask for help, checking materials in and out is now primarily the patron’s responsibility. This is great for privacy, but I’m guessing this was mainly arranged to free up the former circ staff for other duties—since the library had to reduce hours system-wide this year for budgetary reasons, I doubt they have the funding to hire much additional staff. Those reduced hours are going to make it a challenge to try out that laptop table. My best time for hanging out is Sunday afternoons, and this branch is closed on Sundays. Maybe I’ll drop by on my next day off. Maybe I’ll even bring a beverage.

This post is the product of a Sunday afternoon spent in a café. Not, alas, in the remodeled library.

The days of loans and options

When I got my Kindle, one of the major frustrations was that I couldn’t check out library e-books. This alone almost stopped me from buying the Kindle; it wasn’t until Amazon announced that it was working on a system for library loans that I finally committed myself to the purchase. And when I finally could borrow e-books, I flung myself into reacquainting myself with light fiction. You know these books: you enjoy reading them, you really do, but you’ll never read any of them a second time, and even buying them used seems like a waste of money. I put together a sizable wish list on the library’s website and began working my way through one e-book after another. I’d forgotten I could get through books that fast. When I love non-fiction, I slow down to ponder the ideas; with fiction, I speed up to see what happens next.

It’s been sweet. It’s been fun. It ends tonight.

See, the public library e-book resources around here aren’t distributed evenly. The neighboring library system has a collection roughly ten times larger than my library’s (they have a bigger budget and they started building their collection earlier). Not that this really mattered up until now because we could all borrow from all the local libraries, regardless of which city or suburb we actually lived in. So if an e-book was available through my library, that was great, but usually I ended up looking through the other library’s collection.

But you may have noticed that the economy is a bit shaky. Public libraries are funded by tax dollars, and those have been drying up for years now. Both libraries have had their funding cut; each has had to come up with a way to stretch the remaining money as far as possible. My library cut 34 hours, scattered through the 11 libraries in the system, with everyone hoping that no one branch suffers too badly. The library next door took a different approach. No cuts to hours, no staff cuts, but they limited how much stuff patrons could borrow and who could do the borrowing. One of the new restrictions is that only their county’s residents can borrow their e-books effective January 1.

Of course I’m frustrated. Who’d want to be limited to a tiny selection of e-books after having access to a much bigger one? But I’m also worried about a larger implication. What kind of precedent is this setting? Will other libraries in the area begin limiting their services to their own residents? One strength of libraries has been their ability to get materials for their patrons that they themselves don’t own. Sure, I can still get print materials from the library next door, and I’m likely to do so, but what happens if the budget goes downhill again? Between this, and publisher uncertainty about how to manage e-book deals with libraries, I end up glumly worrying about the future of libraries overall.

Musings of an ungrateful wretch

On September 21, Amazon delivered on its promise to enable Kindles to borrow library e-books and a few days after that, my local public library was able to lend theirs out. Skimming through the collection today, I’d say the public response was enthusiastic because almost every nonfiction e-book has been checked out and many of them have holds on them. My library says it has 373 nonfiction e-book titles and only 61 of them are available as I write this, which suggests that 312 of them (84%) are checked out. Fiction? 669 e-book titles in the system, 84 available at the moment: 585 (87%) of them are checked out. I have no idea what this library’s statistics are for print book circulation, but if 84% to 87% of that collection was out on loan, I think I’d notice the empty shelves when I walked through the stacks. Yay! The e-books are popular and they’re generating statistics the library can brandish as it seeks funding.

So why am I an ungrateful wretch? Because even though this is so much more than I had a week ago, mostly what I’m doing is finding fault with the system. For instance, just getting an e-book sounds like it’s going to be a challenge. Oh, not the downloading part (haven’t even attempted that yet); I’m talking finding an e-book to check out. Unlike popular print titles, no e-book title I saw had more than one “copy.” If an e-book I’m interested in has eight people waiting for it and they each keep it for the maximum time allowed of three weeks, it’s going to be almost six months before I get a crack at it. And that’s assuming I find something I want to read. My library’s entire collection of e-books appears to total 1,042.* That’s small compared to other public libraries in the area, much less compared to the millions of titles available from Amazon.com itself.** Nor does it help that I’m being done in by my penchant for titles from the long tail.

I’m not coming up with a simple solution. I’m sure my library can’t afford a larger e-book subscription (either more titles, or more “copies” of the titles they’ve got already) without cutting funds from some other part of its budget. It’s not like I want them to lay staff off, close a branch, or stop buying print books. Even if the price of e-book readers is dropping, there are many out there who can’t afford them even now, and many who simply aren’t interested. The economy continues to suck, so I’m not expecting my library’s budget to be increased any time soon.

So what am I doing? Well, I’ve submitted a form to a neighboring library to become eligible to check out their e-books. I should gain access in another week or so. Meanwhile, I’ve just bought another e-book to read until that access comes through. The irony is not lost on me that even though I bought my Kindle contingent on its being able to utilize library e-books, I’m likely to end up buying most of the titles I want to read anyway.


*I could very well have an incorrect count; I’m working from numbers in the catalog, not official library statistics.

**Hennepin County Library, which had over 10,000 titles available when I mentioned them in July, now may have over 19,000 titles if I read the numbers right.

E-books: the sf/f panel

This past weekend, I attended CONvergence 2011, one of our local science fiction/fantasy conventions, and the largest. What they say about e-readers being well-suited for travel is right: it was so much easier to load a couple of books onto the Kindle and slip it into my bag rather than haul the equivalent in print volumes along with me. Between the books I was bringing along to release for BookCrossing and the books I was bringing to have autographed and to refer to for a book discussion, my luggage was taking on the qualities of a small ship’s anchor. Paper in any quantity isn’t light.

It is probably not surprising that a science fiction/fantasy convention would have a panel on e-books. It should not be surprising that I would attend such a panel, especially as I am still caught up in the newness of the Kindle and the whole e-book phenomenon. The panelists were mostly writers who now publish their works in the e-book format, but there was also a librarian from Hennepin County Library who was getting a lot of experience helping patrons manage e-books.

I continue to be fascinated by how unsettled this whole field is. I’m sure there have been periods like this in the past (competing VCR formats come to mind, as does the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war). Perhaps these other periods were filled with energetic debate and I just missed out because I wasn’t paying attention. Or is it that the discussion of e-books vs. print editions is especially charged because print books have been a fundamental part of our culture for centuries?

It was clear that as a reader, I don’t always share the writerly perspective. Piracy? I don’t commit it myself, so I completely space that it would be of vital interest to someone trying to earn a living through works that can be so easily pirated now that they’re in a digital format. Even so, the level of concern varied from one writer to the next. Some writers in the audience were worried even about the legitimate distribution of their works. At the other extreme, one of the panelists talked about how she’d abandoned her efforts to stop piracy of her works because it took too much time away from her writing. Another difference in perspectives: the writers were basically in agreement that Google Books uses too much of their works in its previews. Really? It never seems like these previews show me enough!

After the writers on the panel had talked for a while, the discussion shifted over to the librarian. I was astonished to learn that even some of these published writers weren’t aware that e-books can be checked out from libraries. The whole controversy about HarperCollins’ 26-checkouts limit that is rocking so much of the library world may be essentially unknown outside of it (and incidentally, HCL figures that they get 35 checkouts of a hardcover book before it wears out). Impressive factoid: in July 2010, HCL had about 700 e-book titles available for checkout. Now they have over 10,000 titles. Wow. (Those of us with Kindles are still waiting to be able to access this bounty.)

Naturally, there was speculation about the future. Someone suggested that while hardcovers would continue for those who preferred print editions, e-books would replace paperback editions. (What about those books that never come out in hardcover?) One audience member stated that he thought that people who read books could be divided into two types: readers and book-lovers. He figured that the former would readily shift over to e-books while the latter would be the market for collectible print editions. I don’t think it’s quite that clear-cut. I’ve become fond of e-books, mostly for the reasons I already talked about here, but I also appreciate the tactile sensations of a physical book. Is there some economically sensible way I can have dual editions of much of my library?

There was a second panel at CONvergence on e-books, although this was a bit inadvertent, since the panel was supposed to be about the future of bookstores. Everyone ended up talking about e-books anyway, which says something about how fascinating this crowd finds them. Of course, bookstores were endangered well before e-books became an issue—just ask any independent bookseller who went out of business after the large chains became dominant. And while those large chains are really having problems now that e-books are hot, those problems began as a bricks-and-mortar vs. online stores issue. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come that no one in this panel was able to articulate a way that bookstores could survive beyond a general we like them and they’ve always been around. And is there still a Borders anywhere near you?

Library Technology 2010

I recently attended Library Technology 2010. The title is pretty obvious, right? Libraries, technology, libraries + technology… This is the third year for this conference and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to attend all three. This year I’m feeling motivated enough to talk about it.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Well, okay, SharePoint was probably only exciting to me. But see, I’m supposed to be our library’s SharePoint site administrator and none of us could figure out what SharePoint was supposed to be good for. Our IT department was willing to help, but they didn’t really know what a library needed, so we were stuck. So finding out there was a panel called “SharePoint for Libraries” was thrilling as all get-out and now I’ve finally got us something up and running. I’ve got structure; now to get content.

Relax: not all my enthusiasms were that esoteric/inexplicable. At the panel on emerging technologies, the presenters pointed us toward a video of a mixed-reality book. Wave the right preprinted symbol card in front of a web camera and a 3D image appears floating over the page. So what if this particular book is in Thai – I want to play with it anyway! These same panelists were brave enough to say in public that they expected the desktop computer to be in its final years, that everyone will be using mobile technology. I’m torn (assuming they’re right). Mobile is great; don’t get me wrong. But do I want to spend hours at a time on something as unergonomically correct as my laptop and netbook are? (I think it’s safe to assume that I won’t be writing papers on my iPod Touch anytime soon, so I’m not counting it). Except, of course, it’s not whether I’m comfortable going completely mobile—what will the rest of the world be doing? What will patrons need from libraries when they’re potentially carrying entire libraries around in their hands?

And then there was the stuff that might not have been exciting, but sure was interesting. In 2008 and 2009, Web 2.0 and its library analog Library 2.0 were the talk of this conference. What was Web 2.0, how could librarians meet the needs of patrons who were expecting access to the Web 2.0 tools they used in the rest of their lives, how could librarians with limited resources work with Library 2.0, and so on. This year, they were scarcely mentioned. And I might not have even noticed except that I overheard someone telling his friend, “Have you noticed how nobody’s talking about Web 2.0 this year?” Maybe that means we’ve made it to Web 2.0. It would’ve been nice if there had been an official announcement or something.

Twitter really took off this year. Attendees were encouraged (and sometimes asked) to bring laptops to the conference and many people just tweeted throughout the event (#libtech2010). I confess to not contributing any tweets, but every now and then I’d start reading along and it was like being in several panels at the same time. You could tell when an important point had been made because you’d get three tweets on it at once. There was also a panel on Google Wave. Now GW is by no means ready for prime time, but there was a public wave set up for this panel and we were able to play on it while they were discussing Wave. For once, GW was well-behaved and didn’t crash during the panel. No one was willing to declare that it was going to be the new hot thing anytime soon, though. Think about it. Google Wave has been around since September, and half a year later, I’m complimenting it for not crashing during a single panel. By contrast, Google Buzz popped into existence only in February 2010, and it’s made a niche for itself already, with most of the complaints centering on privacy issues, not functionality.

Now all of this was fun and wonderful and exciting and all that, but I came out of the whole conference worried about the futures of both the library and the printed book. The first keynote speaker made some cogent points. Private companies are performing functions that libraries should be doing (for example, why aren’t we borrowing our DVDs from our libraries instead of Netflix?). Well, those companies have some major advantages. They usually have just a few goals (Netflix mainly concerns itself with DVD rental) and they have the financial resources to pursue them. Libraries, on the other hand, have many goals and few resources. The infrastructure that libraries need to be major players just isn’t there. In fact, libraries have a conflict in meeting this challenge. As small individual organizations, libraries connect better with their communities. If they unite, pooling their resources (and how they would do this is unclear), they might be able to make a presence for themselves in between the social networking sites, the online stores, etc., but the United Library might seem as faceless as these corporations. The speaker ended by saying something would save libraries, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t say what that would be, which was a) hardly reassuring, and b) not a great way to end a speech.

As for the printed book, well, is it going the way of the CD? You can still buy CDs, but really, don’t they feel like yesterday’s format? I haven’t brought myself to download a whole album yet, but that’s kind of the point: people are buying individual songs now. I’ve done it myself. Admittedly, books don’t subdivide as easily as CDs unless you’re talking about an essay collection or an anthology of short stories. But sprinkled in between the valid objections that reading a screen just isn’t as comfortable as reading print on paper, a lot of the arguments for the printed book sound more sentimental than practical. Will the love of the smell of paper or the feel of a book in your hand be enough to keep the print book market going ten years from now? Are you being more environmentally correct by buying an ebook reader rather than a book printed on paper made from trees that had to be cut down? And maybe yes, you’ll keep your books for years, but what about newspapers and magazines?

Tons of questions, much speculation, few answers. I hope I can make it to next year’s conference.