Category Archives: Library Issues

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Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation

Last week I attended the Aspen Institute Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, a gathering of 30 individuals from a variety of backgrounds (both library and non-library) whose goal was to have 3 days worth of discussions about how to make libraries in the United States more innovative. I don’t know if the entire list of participants has been made public, but the attendees were easily some of the smartest and most thoughtful people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. As I mentioned in my initial post about the Roundtable, I was concerned about diversity in the voices in the room, and while I’m not qualified to truly judge how well that went, I did notice one particular bias that I am interested in calling out and pursuing as a part of the conversation. But more on that in a minute.

The roundtable opened day one with a presentation by John Seely Brown, otherwise known simply as JSB. If you aren’t familiar with JSB, take a second and look over his wikipedia page to get an idea of his importance. His speech was interesting and set the stage for a lot of the discussions that sprang forth over the next few days. Take a look:

Day two began with a presentation on Design Thinking from Michelle Ha Tucker from IDEO. I’m totally sold on human centered design as a key to rethinking the way libraries do what they do, and have done a number of workshops on process on that front. If you aren’t familiar, take a look at her presentation, framed well around library issues:

From our initial discussions about innovation considered broadly, we broke up into three working groups that set about considering what it would take for Libraries to innovate in different areas. The areas identified were Engagement/Access/Inclusion, Learning & Creativity, and Public Forum & Citizenship, and each group discussed what innovation in each of these areas looked like, how that could be translated into the library sphere, and what a project might look like if it attempted to instantiate that solution. I was a part of the Public Forum & Citizenship group, and we spent most of our time revolving around the problem of libraries acting in concert with one another and bemoaning the lack of overarching structures for working together…a common theme from the larger discussions of the Roundtable.

There were several of these emergent themes that repeated themselves during the week. The lack of some form of national organization that allowed economic centralization for libraries was maybe the largest though…the non-librarians in the room were flabbergasted to discover how very local the library economy is, and how much it prohibits collective purchasing efforts.

The largest tension in the discussions for me was the bias that I alluded to earlier, that of urban vs rural libraries. There was repeated use of a statistic that I’m still not clear on the provenance of, that 295 libraries in the U.S. serve 30% of the population of the country…obviously all of them in large urban areas. Anyone familiar with Libraryland could name the large public library systems included in those numbers: New York Public, Los Angeles Public, Chicago Public, Boston Public, Miami-Dade, Denver Public, and a small handful more. Given that there are roughly 9000 public libraries in the U.S., I understand the concentration on those areas of easy implementation…but I rankle more than a little at the lack of acknowledgement of the greater need for support in rural America. The poorest parts of rural America are much poorer than the equivalent urban poverty centers, and they lack nearly any support system for their poverty. In much of the poorest areas of the U.S., the rural south, the public library is the only place that’s accessible for educational resources beyond school age.

So while I understand striking with efforts where the highest number might be affected, I also want to keep reminding people about the needs of the rural United States. Let’s not forget those that need us most even while we try to maximize our efforts.

eRate

One of the largest discussions of the Roundtable revolved around the FCC and its eRate plans for internet access in libraries and schools. An FCC staffer was there to walk through the options for libraries, and to give us numbers on how bad library participation in eRate really is. Everyone in the room agreed why this was the case, the CIPA requirement for filtering. It was nice timing that just after our discussion of this issue, the ALA released a formal statement on CIPA that begins, in part:

“CIPA specifically requires public libraries and schools seeking e-rate discounts for internet connections to install technology protection measures, i.e., content filters, to block two categories of visual images that are unprotected by the First Amendment: obscene images and images of child pornography.”

and concludes

“CIPA-mandated content filtering has had three significant impacts in our schools and libraries. First, it has widened the divide between those who can afford to pay for personal access and those who must depend on publicly funded (and filtered) access. Second, when content filtering is deployed to limit access to what some may consider objectionable or offensive, often minority viewpoints religions, or controversial topics are included in the categories of what is considered objectionable or offensive. Filters thus become the tool of bias and discrimination and marginalize users by denying or abridging their access to these materials. Finally, when over-blocking occurs in public libraries and schools, library users, educators, and students who lack other means of access to the Internet are limited to the content allowed by unpredictable and unreliable filters.

The negative effects of content filters on Internet access in public libraries and schools are demonstrable and documented. Consequently, consistent with previous resolutions, the American Library Association cannot recommend filtering. However the ALA recognizes that local libraries and schools are governed by local decision makers and local considerations and often must rely on federal or state funding for computers and internet access. Because adults and, to a lesser degree minors, have First Amendment rights, libraries and schools that choose to use content filters should implement policies and procedures that mitigate the negative effects of filtering to the greatest extent possible. The process should encourage and allow users to ask for filtered websites and content to be unblocked, with minimal delay and due respect for user privacy.”

None of this is untrue, and I agree with all of it: Internet Filtering is a joke, a crime against the freedom of information access, a risk to privacy of the reading experience, and simply doesn’t work. However, the current opportunities from the eRate program are…well, if not once-in-a-lifetime, they are pretty close. The FCC is trying very hard to incentivize the construction of fiber to every library. All of them. eRate will pay for between 10-80% of the construction costs for fiber to the library, including things like huge fiber runs into rural areas and the hubs and switches necessary to make it work inside the building. And in places where the State has a matching program, the FCC + State match can pay for 100% of the costs.

This is like the Rural Electrification Act, except for the next-gen connectivity that will be needed by communities over the next decade. In rural areas, getting fiber anywhere is nearly impossible…it isn’t worth the infrastructure costs for providers to run the fiber. But if someone else is paying to run it, and it runs to a conveniently located place in a community like a library, the most expensive part of the work is done. This will enable communities to be connected that could never be previously. The FCC staffer was talking about future-proofing this construction by aiming for 10 Gbps connections to these libraries…a sort of super connectivity. This is important, potentially transformative stuff for communities and libraries.

So what are the difficulties? The first is the aformentioned CIPA rules about filtering…which some libraries are happily complying with now. Note that the rules for CIPA don’t say that you have to filter! They just say that you must “install technology measures”, have a policy in place, and hold a meeting with you constituents about said policy. It is possible to comply with the rules for CIPA at a very low level…blacklisting pornographic sites via DNS filtering on computers in your children’s area, for example. I believe it is possible to meet the letter of the law, not impede access to information, and use eRate funds to increase connectivity in areas that badly need it.

After talking at length to an FCC staffer about this program, I do honestly believe that connectivity is their goal. They aren’t out hunting for libraries that “fail” some CIPA test. If we can find a way to meet the minimum requirements for CIPA and not compromise our information ethics, we should do so.

The second difficulty in eRate funding is the application process itself. It is…non-trivial. In this case, I think we need to find models that libraries can follow, and that consortia need to focus on offering eRate application as a service to their member libraries.

Conclusions

The Aspen Institute will be producing a report from our discussions, with recommendations for libraries. The Knight Foundation produced a nice summary of our work on their blog, and I’m sure that more will trickle out as other participants write up their thoughts. I’m interested in working in the areas I know of rural America to try and use the new FCC eRate push to try and get more communities connected, and I’m very interested to continue these conversations over the next year.

Daniel Boone National Forest

Poverty, Libraries, Jobs, Me

A bit earlier today I saw a handful of librarians on Twitter posting a link to a Library Director’s job with what appeared to be an appalling salary of $7.25 an hour.

Each of these tweets have been re-tweeted a dozen or so times as I’m writing this, so people are sharing it. Heck, I clicked through when I saw the salary, curious what sort of place thought they could get someone for that price, and where you could possibly live on that salary.

The answer? Just down the road from where I grew up, that’s where.

Elliot county

So the marker there is the library in question, and the little town north of it that’s circled, that’s my home town of Olive Hill, KY. The library is in the county seat of Elliott County, KY, in a town of just about 600 people called Sandy Hook. Here’s a larger map to give you some additional context about just exactly where this is located.

Elliott County large

 

This part of the world is where I spent the first 22 years of my life, as a kid and teenager in Olive Hill and then as an undergrad at Morehead State University just down the road. If you check the Google Street View of where the Library in question sits,  it is right next to an elementary school where I played basketball as a boy.

So when I say this, I say it with the conviction of someone who knows: there is very, very little likelihood that anyone posting about this on Twitter has ever seen poverty of the sort that they have in Elliott County, KY. Hell, the entire concept of the “War on Poverty” started just down the road from Elliott County, an hour southeast in Inez, KY, where LBJ launched his famous efforts to eliminate poverty in the US.  Elliott County is the 49th Poorest County by Median Household Income in the entire United States of America. For some more reference, the median household income for Sandy Hook in 2010 was $14,313.

If there is anywhere in this country where kids need a library to help them dream, this is that place.

I was curious after seeing this tweet…

…so I decided to take a look. And if this news report is to be believed, it’s true…the poorest postal code in Canada (B1W, the Cape Breton – Eskasoni First Nation) has a median household income of $19,392 Canadian, or $15,401 US. So there is literally not a single place in Canada that is poorer than Sandy Hook, KY.

With that said: should a library director be paid $7.25/hr? No, of course not. But in this part of Kentucky, believe it or not, that is a decent salary. Not because it is objectively an amount of money that someone deserves for doing their job, but only because the area around it has been forgotten. This part of the world has been given up on by the former industries that sustained it, by the clay and the tobacco and the lumber that were the only reasons money ever flowed into the economy of the area in the first place.

This is a place that I love, this Eastern Kentucky. Even now, decades after I left, I can close my eyes and see the soft clay streaking the soil. I can feel the limestone bones that make up the gentle foothills of the Appalachians. I can smell the warmth of a tobacco barn on a Fall evening.

These are people that need help. I hope they find someone for that job that can not only show the children of Elliott County that there is a wider world, but that just maybe one of those kids will find a way to help save my Eastern Kentucky.

Adobe Digital Editions and infoleaks

Eliminate DRMThe online library world exploded today over the revelation that Adobe Digital Editions, software that is required for many library-focused eBook services, evidently leaks like a sieve when it comes to our user’s information. The TL:DR version of the story is that ADE appears to be sending in plain text to Adobe’s servers information such as: the book you are reading, title, publisher, which pages you have read and which page you are currently on. Much longer discussions about the leak and potential fallout here:

Andromeda and Galen then both went on to touch on some of the core problems with this leak, focusing on the conflict between Adobe’s action and the ethics of librarianship, and the possible role that ALA may have in bridging the gaps in libraries’ knowledge of these actions.

There are a few things I wanted to emphasize about this situation. The first is that several of the reports have noted that earlier versions of Adobe Digital Editions didn’t seem to “spy on its users” in the way that the most recent version (version 4) does, and recommend using earlier versions. The truth of the matter is that of course the earlier versions are spying on users…they just aren’t doing it in as transparent a manner as the current version. We need to decide whether we are angry at Adobe for failing technically (for not encrypting the information or otherwise anonymizing the data) or for failing ethically (for the collection of data about what someone is reading). It’s possible to be angry at both, but here’s a horrible truth: If they had gotten the former right and encrypted the information appropriately, we’d have no idea about the latter at all.

I think that Andromeda has it right, that we need to insist that the providers of our digital information act in a way that upholds the ethical beliefs of our profession. It is possible, technically, to provide these services (digital downloads to multiple devices with reading position syncing) without sacrificing the privacy of the reader. For example (and this is just off the top of my head) you could architect the sync engine to key off of a locally-hashed UserID + BookID that never left the device, and only transmit the hash and the location information in a standardized format. This would give you anonymous page syncing between devices without having to even worry about encryption of the traffic, as long as you used an appropriate hash function. I would prefer this approach, because (as mentioned above), if the entire communications stack is encrypted, it’s a black box for anyone attempting to see inside and verify what the vendor is actually collecting. There are answers to this as well (encryption keys that the vendor never sees at all, for example, and are totally local to the user’s device a la Apple’s latest security enhancements).

There are technical solutions that satisfy our ethical concerns. We need to insist that our vendors care enough about our ethics that the technical answers become a market differentiator. We need to insist that this is important and then we need to make them listen.

Code4LibDC Unconference Workshop

Monday and Tuesday of this week I had the opportunity to attend the 2014 Code4LibDC Unconference, where I had been invited to lead an introduction to hardware hacking workshop. Thanks in large part to the generosity of SparkFun Electronics, whose Education arm let me borrow the hardware necessary to run the workshop (15 sets of the Sparkfun Redboard Arduino clone, breadboards, wiring, LEDs, and sensors).

I decided that I wanted to try and reverse the normal order of pretty much every “Learn Arduino” workshop that I’d seen, so rather than start with a blank slate and have the students build a circuit to blink an LED, I decided that I wanted them to start with a working circuit that was a bit more complicated and then deconstruct it. As a result, I spent most of a day late the week before building out a dozen or so circuits that would light a series of 4 LEDs dependent on the value of a potentiometer, and then packing them up and hoping the TSA didn’t find them “interesting”. The idea was that the participants would immediately have a working thing, and then could break it, alter it, change it, and they would have something that was immediately useful rather than struggle to make it work from the outset. Judging from the reactions I got, I think that was a good call…the participants seemed to have a grand time deconstructing why the circuit did what it did. It also provided an example of how something very simple could be useful in a library…you could, with very little change, basically replace the potentiometer with a thermistor and have a temperature gauge, or with a microphone and have a noise indicator for “too loud” rooms.

We weren’t without problems (no hardware session ever is) but overall I felt like it went well, and I can’t wait to work on making this particular workshop even better. I really want to teach more and more librarians how to hack on hardware to benefit their libraries. A few of the participants really had a field day, with one group altering the simple 4 LED series to instead be a 4-bit binary counter, and another working out an algorithm that allowed for soft fades instead of simple on/off of the lights.

If anyone is interested, below you will find my slides from the workshop. They need work before I try to give this again, but I think they are a good start.

The Future of Things: How everywhere changes everything

This morning I was privileged to give a keynote address to the Homewood Public Library in Homewood, IL for their Staff Development day. It was the first time I gave this particular talk, and it was a distillation of an essay that I’ve been trying to write for some time. The thrust of both is that the technological changes coming over the next 5-10 years are likely to be so transformative that we (libraries and librarians) need to be thinking now, hard, about how we prepare for them. How do libraries continue to measure our value when our historical measurements become useless? How can we use open hardware to prepare ourselves for these newly-needed measurements? How will the continued and unavoidable drop in price, increase in processing, and lessening of power consumption of hardware be useful for libraries?

I don’t have lots of answers. But I think these are the beginnings of some interesting questions.

So here’s my slide deck from the presentation. I hope to have the essay/post/whatever it ends up being done soon. I really want to start talking about this with other librarians.

Things that made me think

I’ve been re-reading a number of posts the last few days, and a few of them just truly stand out as things that have changed or are changing my thinking about tech and libraries…just really, really great things. If you haven’t read these yet, go do so:

  • Living our Values by Meredith Farkas – Meredith has been someone in libraries that I’ve looked up to for a long time, and is one of those people that seem to grok librarianship in a way that I’m still stumbling towards. There are others in this group (Jessamyn West, Michael Stephens, Michael Porter, Karen Schneider, and so many more) that I am indebted to for inspiring me to start writing this blog in the first place. If you haven’t obsessively read Meredith’s blog from beginning to end, you’re missing a great resource on how to be a librarian in the 21st century.
  • Walking Away from the American Chemical Society by Jenica Rogers – When searching for words to describe Jenica, I find that the same words describe her writing: Brave, amazing, inspiring, fierce, and honest. To find all of that in a person AND to have that person be in a leadership role AND be public about said role? I’m not sure it’s ever been done this way in libraries. She’s doing leadership right.
  • Hardware is Dead by Jay Goldberg & How Low (Power) Can You Go? by Charlie Stross – I’ve been spending many, many processing cycles thinking about hardware, and the Maker movement, the future of technology and libraries. These two essays sparked whole new pathways, and helped me light new areas to explore. I’ve got a lot to say about this stuff, which I’ll hopefully be doing over the next year or so.
  • How to See the Future by Warren Ellis – I’m just going to quote a section of this, because it’s so good I can’t even use my own paltry words in talking about it:

Understand that our present time is the furthest thing from banality. Reality as we know it is exploding with novelty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to understand, before you start the day here, that the invisible thing in the room is the felt presence of living in future time, not in the years behind us.

Go read these. I’ve got nothing to say that even comes close right now.

Heresy and Patron Data

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years thinking, writing, and speaking about ebooks. I’m on the Board of Directors of Library Renewal, a group dedicated to finding ways to make the ebook experience a good one for libraries, publishers, and authors. And I’ve spoken all over the US and Internationally about eReaders and how digital content changes libraries. So what I am about to suggest is something that has been rattling around in my head for some time now, and I feel like it’s something that I’d love to hear other thoughts about.

So as the Joker said in The Dark Knight Returns:

When we look at how libraries, pubishers, and authors all interrelate vis a vis electronic content, specifically ebooks, the models that are largely being forwarded are straightforward economic models. The rights-holders have content, we want content, we pay them for content. Most of the disagreement comes down to the details: how much are we paying, and what rights do with have to the content that we are paying for. The majority of “new” models that are being trumpeted in libraryland, like the Douglas County Public ebook model, are just differently-arranged ways of doing exactly the same thing…which, admittedly, gives different outcomes on the two contentious fronts (cost and rights) but isn’t actually new in any significant way.

In an economic system, when one side of an equation (libraries) want something from another side (rights-holders), there is an exchange of value that takes place wherein both sides agree that said value exchange is fair in both directions. Libraries pay money for content…this is, at its base, just a value exchange between libraries and publishers.

Libraries don’t want a free ride as far as ebooks are concerned. Every single librarian that I have spoken with is perfectly willing to continue to pay for content. Unfortunately, the economics of libraries are such that when we want more rights (the ability to check out ebooks to any number of patrons simultaneously, or the right to ILL ebooks, etc) we don’t have the ability to exchange our typical economic instrument (money) for them. Think about Amazon and their ability to put the Harry Potter books into their Lending Library…freely available to anyone with an Amazon Prime membership. Libraries would kill for the right to do this, but Amazon is the one that can write the check. If we had tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at publishers, we could dictate any rights we wished. But we don’t.

So the question that’s been bugging me is: what else do we have, besides cash, that is of value to the rights holders and could be traded for more of what we want. Libraries generate value in enormous numbers of ways, but what do we have that publishers might want that would give us some bartering ability?

Some librarians have started looking at these value-exchanges in a new way. Toby Greenwalt, a librarian at the Skokie Public Library, started asking what the value was to the publishers of the awards that the American Library Association gives out for childrens and young adult titles, and Andromeda Yelton followed up with a look at how those awards related to the ability for libraries to lend those books electronically. Here’s something that the ALA does, which appears to be significant value to publishers, with no visible complimentary exchange of value going the other direction.

Finally we get to what I’ve been thinking of as my heretical idea. Because when I think about what other thing of value that libraries have that could potentially be traded to publishers in order to get an equivalent set of value back from them in the way of ebook rights, I keep coming back to one thing:

Information. Information about our patrons, information about our circulations of individual books, and demographic information about our users and what books they read.

I know. A lot of librarians just stopped reading, or perhaps began clutching the arms of their chairs a bit too tightly. Patron information! The holiest of holies in library land, the Thing Which Must Not Be Shared! One of the core tenets of librarianship is that the borrowing history of the individual is sacrosanct. And for very, very good reasons…it doesn’t take a paranoid person to see the ways in which reading histories should be kept private, from the teenager looking for information about sexuality to the individual checking out a book about chronic illness (you wouldn’t want your insurance company to know that, now would you). As the saying goes, “show me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are”.

But this information is valuable. Publishers would love to know more about their readers, as it helps them to make better decisions about what to publish, how to market, and what sorts of books that a given population is more likely to buy. The amount of data that libraries could have in this realm is enormous, and could be a huge lever with which to move the playing field that we are all currently on regarding ebooks.

I am very aware, there are huge problems with this idea. The data in many cases is actually non-existent (libraries are very good about dumping this data so that it can’t be used by law enforcement or others in negative ways against readers). In order to maintain any sort of patron trust, there would have to be serious thought given to sanitization of the data, stripping of individually identifying information, and more (and yes, I am aware that stripping of individually identifying information has been shown to be basically useless…I retain some hope that there is a way to do it that isn’t). It is also the case that with the rise of cloud-based ILS systems that this information is going to be more available than ever, and centralized on servers that are out of library’s control.

But if we want the next decade to be a good one for us, libraries and librarians need to put some serious thought into what our other value-creation areas are, and how we can begin to identify and trade on those against the rights-holders. Because our money is getting thin, our prices are going up, digital is likely to kill our existing model completely, and we need new ways to think about these things.

What else do we have? What sort of leverage do we have that we aren’t using? What can we bring to the negotiating table that we haven’t yet?

A shot across the bow

If you had any doubts that Amazon’s Lending Library was eventually going to compete with public libraries, here’s where your doubts get shattered. From Amazon’s homepage today, on the announcement of all 7 Harry Potter books entering the Kindle Lending Library program:

With traditional library lending, the library buys a certain number of e-book copies of a particular title. If all of those are checked out, you have to get on a waiting list….the wait can sometimes be months.

With the Kindle Owners Lending Library, there are no due dates, you can borrow as frequently as once a month, and there are no limits on how many people can borow the same title…

The full image of the announcement is included after the click: Continue reading A shot across the bow

Commoditizing our complements

In business and economics, there is a concept that is often expressed with the phrase “Commoditize your complement”. A complementary product is has some form of necessary connection to the product in question…the usual example is automobiles and gasoline. As Joel Spolsky puts it:

A complement is a product that you usually buy together with another product. Gas and cars are complements. Computer hardware is a classic complement of computer operating systems. And babysitters are a complement of dinner at fine restaurants. In a small town, when the local five star restaurant has a two-for-one Valentine’s day special, the local babysitters double their rates. (Actually, the nine-year-olds get roped into early service.)

All else being equal, demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease.

Thus the concept of commoditizing (making available uniformly and interchangably) your complement. If you can decrease the cost of your complement, you by necessity increase the cost of your product. Microsoft learned this very early, and went on to great success, making hardware (the complement to it’s product, software) a commodity product…it didn’t matter if you bought from Dell, or Gateway, or Asus, or IBM, or Lenovo, or…the list goes and on. Those companies struggled to make money in a market driven to complete interchangability, while Microsoft made billions on software. A reversal of this strategy, as Marco Arment has pointed out, is Apple is attempting to commoditize software via its iOS and Mac App Stores, because its product (where they make their profit) is the hardware.

My questions to the library world: What is our product? What should we be commoditizing in order to make our product more valuable? The concept isn’t just about money, it’s about market values, even when the market in question isn’t measured in dollars but in reputation, importance, and community value. What should we be pushing to commodity so that our business becomes more valuable to our communities?

I have my theories, but want to hear yours.