Thursday, 29 May 2014

Gimmicks, Guides, and Getting Involved

In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” Tom Hanks is part of a family that owns a fictional version of The Chain. He jokes that their plan to draw customers/readers into the store is through things that don’t have that much to do with books: “our square footage . . . and our deep armchairs, and our cappuccino.” Although The Chain is the bad guy for 95% of the film and these extras seem more like a trap than a benefit, it’s actually not a bad point of comparison for what is happening right now with the Boston Public Library. According to an article in the New York Times, the BPL renovation will add things like rooms for teens to get involved with technology, a coffee shop, and possibly even an area for static exercise bikes. The aim is to create a cultural centre—the exact opposite of the funeral parlour scene some still seem to imagine when they think of the future of libraries.

The Boston Public Library (BPL) is not only America’s first public city library, but also second in the country in terms of the number of physical books. However, organizers of the renovation project have no plans to use this long history and obvious commitment to physical books as a reason to continue unchangingly until they are utterly outdated. Their technology departments are expanding and Susan Benton of the Urban Libraries Council claims that “physical visits and virtual visits are off the charts.” The article postulates that by turning the BPL into a more welcoming and tech-savvy environment will not only improve the spread of knowledge and information, but also increase the creativity of those who use the space.

I think this is a fantastic idea and a great way to keep kids coming back to the library as they grow up. An article by the independent newspaper of Boston College mentions that people aged 20 to 35 are the hardest demographic for a library to attract. I remember using the library much more when I was a kid, then really only coming back as a university student to get books for pleasure reading in my spare time. On the other hand, I know that when some kids start to move away from books and towards computers, they can become very solitary and introverted. If kids and teens feel more inclined to read when they can do so on an ereader, that’s great. If they choose to go to a local library where this is made available to them in a common area filled with their peers and designed to inspire and engage them, even better.

I imagine that giving children and teens resources like these will help them become more independent and knowledgeable about technology. In this case, what happens to that other fixture of libraries: the librarian? The president of the BPL, Amy Ryan, insists that libraries are as important as ever, stating that “people turn to librarians to help them sift through the 10 million answers they find on the Internet. We’re more like navigators.” Ryan’s point echoes what Barbara K. Stripling stated in the WSJ articles about libraries as “digital guides”. What I’m getting from this is that basically, every librarian wants to be the Hikaru Sulu of the starship Library, piloting the way into new technologies where no librarian has gone before. Boston College’s newspaper believes that the staff of the library will more closely resemble those in the indie bookstore trade. This means they will possess valuable, specialized knowledge, used to cultivate exciting conversations about books, whether digital or physical.

I can easily get on board with this concept. In my mind, being able to talk with someone of authority on the subject of a book you’re really curious about is a huge benefit of the independent bookstore, and one that I haven’t really experienced since the closure of my hometown’s (London, Ontario’s) Wendell Holmes stores. For the past year before starting the publishing program at Humber, I worked at the bookstore of my alma mater, UWO. Although the majority of our customers came solely for their course books, it was always a pleasure when someone asked me to recommend a work of fiction for them to read for fun. I began writing my own book reviews on note cards and tucking one end under the book on the shelf. One day, a man came up to the counter where I worked and, having seen my name under the review, asked me to go into greater detail about one book, Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio. He ended up selecting the book as mandatory reading for his local men’s book club, which made me feel very proud.

When you have a passion for something like reading, nothing is more gratifying than having someone acknowledge and trust your opinion. This is how I picture librarians feeling as well when they can perform the service of an indie bookstore worker instead of being ignored, underestimated, or even let go from their jobs as their career and training become irrelevant with the onset of new technology. I think the mention in the New York Times article of increased creativity is so important. People who read more create more, and I hope that libraries can continue to encourage this outward turn through all manifestations of the written word.

Digital Textbooks For the Lazy Learner

On the Public Libraries of the United States blog, they discuss the practical aspect of carrying an increasing number of ebooks in libraries. According to their post, the cost to libraries is higher when stocking ebooks than physical books, and the selection is vastly decreased. Like the WSJ article, the creators of this blog are also on the side of improving both the quality and quantity of digital books. They make a strong point by saying that whether the books are physical or not doesn’t matter because either way, more access to books means more readers, which is a library’s defining goal. No matter which form people prefer to do their reading in, encouraging the pastime is a positive development in itself.

After voicing their general support, the focus turns to student book use. They (correctly) suggest that mandatory, curriculum-conforming textbooks would be both less expensive and less heavy if they were sold in an “e” format. I understand that there would be a market for those wishing to carry a lighter backpack to class, but I have to disagree with the idea that changing physical course books over to ebooks would be an improvement. Having worked in a university bookstore, I’m very familiar with what we call “Rush week,” when all the students (and their parents) pack themselves into the bookstore during the first week of classes. Though we actually have to create a line and stop people at the door to prevent overcrowding, the number of students that buy their textbooks at this time doesn’t represent the entire student body. Another unofficial Rush happens during the last week before exams at the end of each term. Clearly, this breaks students roughly into two groups: the ones who care about learning the material as they go along, and the ones who think they can speed study a 500-page astronomy textbook the night before their exam. I think e-textbooks would be great for the latter group, but totally off target for the former.

Serious students (I can speak to this because I am one) like to read and reread sections of text. We like to highlight and/or dog-ear and/or post-it note our pages. From here, the necessity of physicality in the learning experience expands to those students so committed that they have figured out what type of studier or learner they are. Kinetic learners greatly benefit from turning the pages and folding over corners to recall placement of key ideas in the text. I personally am able to remember concepts and specific words in an exam by visualizing where on the page and how far into the book they were. These are experiences that cannot be replicated on an ereader because for certain people and certain studying strategies, they just wouldn’t work.

Less committed students would be more suited to the ereader. Being able to purchase a book in e-format allows you to access the text immediately, meaning students could feel an instant gratification knowing that they HAD the textbook, but this wouldn’t necessarily get them to read it. Knowing that, if they so chose, they could read their textbook at any time would bring out the same inherent laziness which stops that same group of students from just buying their physical books at the bookstore at the start of term.

Another pitfall I see in switching textbooks over to ereaders has to do with the progression of the technology. The Public Libraries blog states that having new technology encourages children to learn. In some cases, this is true, but making the generalization is dangerous. More and more handheld devices, even those initially made to attract dedicated readers, are including games and internet accessibility as selling points. I have no problem with this in general, but I think it becomes an issue when students use those same devices to study. Obviously, anyone can get distracted while studying and there is nothing to prevent them from using their phone or laptop to watch cat videos on YouTube. However, if someone actively makes the effort to minimize distractions and leave their computer and phone at home while they go to, for example, the campus library to study, an ereader that also offers Angry Birds almost seems like an unfair temptation.

A university library is less of a cultural gathering place than a public library, and more of a last ditch resort when you just can’t focus on your work anywhere else. I mentioned campus libraries in the previous paragraph as quiet study spaces for dedicated reviewers, but it’s hard to say what would happen if they, like public libraries, began to incorporate ereaders for signing out material.

Adaptive Librarians and Artificial Life Forms

An article from the Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog opens with a statistic from a Pew (an American research centre) survey which claims that 34% of Americans think public libraries haven’t kept up with new technology, while 55% disagree. Although these percentages probably wouldn’t be identical in Canada, I don’t believe the opinions of our citizens would differ very much. If I went into the nearest library to my home in London, Ontario, I’m 99% sure that it would look just as it had when I was nine years old. It’s a small neighbourhood library and the only technology available to patrons comes in the form of computers provided for using the internet or searching the library catalogue. The only NEW technology I’ve actually seen appear is the digital self-checkout, which isn’t exactly going to change lives or lead young minds into the future of publishing and books as we known them. I’m almost positive I could accomplish more alone in my room on my laptop than wandering amongst the limited stacks and massive monitors at the library.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article presents a contrary suggestion. It claims that we need libraries, and librarians, more than ever. I’d like to believe this is true. The institution and the librarian are presented as a space and an instructor, where and to whom one could go for help with unravelling the tangled ball of yarn that is internet research. The president of the American Library Association, Barbara K. Stripling, goes so far as to call librarians the “digital guides” of ebook readers who may feel overwhelmed by the new technology. I am personally not a reader of ebooks. I don’t know whether my own public libraries not carrying this technology has had anything to do with it or not. However, if ever I were to start checking books out of my local library on an ereader, I think a librarian in the know would be a great asset. Librarians, in my opinion, seem like trustworthy and authoritative individuals by nature. I believe I would feel quite comfortable going to them on a device I was unfamiliar with as I wouldn’t worry about being judged for my lack of know-how like I might be in other locations or situations (e.g. at a computer store, or surrounded by tech-savvy peers).

The next part of the WSJ article goes from the ease of asking a librarian for help with research to the somewhat unnerving concept of drones. Choosing between the two, I’d certainly prefer to have a librarian walk me through the use of an ereader than have Rosie from “The Jetsons”/the robot from “Lost in Space”/Marvin from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” whiz over (or trudge depressingly, in the latter case) with my digital copy of. . . War of the Worlds, for example. I know I’m combining drones and robots here, but generally I’d rather see ebooks as the future of publishing in libraries than a servile drone who might accidentally roll over my foot or chuck a book at me from across the library that whacks me in the head.

I think the WSJ article hits its stride towards the end. The writer suggests that another possible future is with “living libraries,” which allow patrons to be in direct contact with librarians or other possessors of knowledge, no matter where they are. To me, this sounds fantastic. I picture it as a sort of interactive encyclopaedia where, once you’ve found information from a book (physical or digital), you can expand on what you’ve gathered immediately with the help of an expert. It’s basically like reading an intro to, say, American modernist poetry, then getting a one-on-one talk from Gertrude Stein to expound upon the concepts you just read. The benefit of the real thing being, of course, the exclusion of corpse reanimation. Maybe this sort of thing would be over in the drone library across the street. The last idea I find interesting from this article is that future libraries could be destinations for participation in cultural activities. I’m going to pick this up later on with a case study on the Boston Public Library.