at your fingertips

If you’re reading this, you are sitting in front of a computer screen (or, perhaps, some kind of mobile screen — or, I suppose, you are reading a printout, but at some point you, or someone, got it from online). I’d like you to think for a moment about that time you spend sitting in front of a computer. I myself spend most of my day that way.

If I’m listening to a story on the radio, and I hear them say, “to see an interactive map of thus and such and hear more of whatever, go to,” I can quite easily stroll over to my laptop (if I don’t have it open already) and check it out. If I want to try again to order some black boots for my extremely long narrow feet (this is, I think, a fruitless quest, but I keep trying), I can spend all the time I want clicking around on Zappos and reading customer reviews. I can work on my taxes online and call my mom to ask a question about them at the same time. If you are reading this, chances are that you are able to do these sorts of things too, and that you do them without much thought.

Now I’d like you to imagine that you don’t have a computer with internet access.

I’d like you to imagine, in other words, that you are like a lot of the people who walk in to the average public library.

How much time does the average public library patron usually get to spend on a computer? 30 minutes to an hour is fairly typical, and that’s 30 minutes to an hour only once a day in a lot of places.

Think about all the things you did on a computer yesterday. Imagine that you had to do them all in one hour, on a computer that does not have all your favorite Firefox extensions, that quite possibly is missing the latest update of Flash, that probably won’t let you burn a CD.

I love the internet. I love that libraries are one of the few places in the world that provide free internet access. But when we talk about electronic resources and the wonders of the web and putting the world at people’s fingertips, I think it’s good to remember that for a significant number of people, we’re giving them an hour of that world at a time, quite probably on Internet Explorer 6.

out of habit

When I lived in the Chicago area, I had a friend who was always trying to get me to listen to Democracy Now!. I wanted to listen to it. I really did. It’s a great show, covering things that no one else is, in ways that no one else is covering them. I wanted to listen to it, but I couldn’t, because it wasn’t on any radio station I could get.

“But you can listen to it on the computer!” he said.

I tried. But I couldn’t.

I get my news from the radio. I listen to the news while I make and eat my breakfast and dinner, and while I’m doing the dishes. I tried listening to Democracy Now! on the computer, but it didn’t work, because when I am on the computer, I am doing computer things — responding to email, reading blogs, IMing, poking around, your basic web surfing type stuff. I can’t do those things and absorb a newscast at the same time. It just doesn’t work.

I try to remember this when I think about libraries. It’s all very well for your library to have a blog, but if none of your patrons are in the habit of reading blogs, it is probably not going to be very helpful to them or successful for you as a form of outreach. And for that matter, even if your patrons do read blogs, how many of them do you think will be interested in reading your blog? I can’t imagine, for instance, that I will ever want to follow ProQuest on Twitter, even if they do start updating their account.

The same principle applies inside your library. It may seem obvious to you that things should be done differently — that you should stop doing work on paper and do it on the computer, that an internal wiki will solve all your communication problems, etc. — but if the workflow that you want to employ is not one that your coworkers are used to, it won’t work very well.

I’ve spoken (softly) to other newer librarians on the subject of “what on the earth did librarians do on the reference desk before the internet?” We say this softly, of course, because we worry that our predecessors obviously did have things they did on the reference desk, and because we suspect that they think all we do on the internet is waste time. Clearly, there has been a shift of habit. I can’t imagine being a librarian without a computer: I sit at one all day long. One of my fellow branch managers, however, has a computer on a separate desk from the one where she normally sits. That seems impractical to me at best, and most days more like impossible. But it works for her. Listening to the news on the radio works for me. I try to keep those things in mind.

i’ll see you on the internet: IL2008

Update: All the stuff from the presentation is really, truly online now. Slides, handouts, links, and more information than you could possibly ever want.

I’m writing this from some vast elevation on the first leg of my flight home from Internet Librarian, where I gave a little talk called How I Made a Website for $16 in Chocolate [not all the stuff is there yet; I’ll update it when next in the land of ftp]. It was a great honor to present in the same session as Sarah Houghton-Jan and to be a part of the fabulous group of speakers Aaron Schmidt put together for a track called Solving Problems. The conference as a whole was good. I particularly enjoyed hearing danah boyd, who synthesized so well so many of the things that we know, or half-know, about community and the internet but haven’t quite been able to articulate ourselves. I learned some great new tricks from Jeff Wisniewski’s Fast & Easy Site Tune-Ups, drooled over SOPAC and VuFind, and, after years of reading about them, finally got to see the Dutch boys.

As with most conferences, however, the best parts of IL this year were the unofficial ones, and about those I have much to say.

I arrived Sunday evening and headed over to the conference center to meet up with Iris, and, while sitting and waiting for her, I looked up to see a tall redhead, and I think “the shock of recognition” would be the best way to explain the look on both our faces. “I think I know you from the internet!” I said to Kate Sheehan. I used that line a lot over the next few days, because I got to meet a whole lot of people that I know from the internet. I’ll forget someone if I try to list them all, but let us just say that the LSW was well-represented (and add a shout-out to my awesome roommate and queen of Capslock Day, Meg). As I think I posted somewhere at some point, I wish the rest of you could all have joined us, although as it was we were having some difficulty getting groups of ten or twelve or fourteen people seated, and any more might have been impossible.

There were all the usual shenanigans you might expect if you are a follower of ITI conferences — beer, karaoke, rickrolling, photographing, name-calling (I’m sorry, Greg, really I am), sea lion watching, and general hanging out. I have been privileged for most of my life to be around smart, talented, creative people, and this group is one of the best. The very last session I attended at LCOW was called Impractical, Unreasonable, Unfeasable, Unfundable Ideas for Your Library, and, as I’ve noted before, despite the utter whackiness of some of the suggestions, some were things that, as Jamie Markus pointed out, we could do or even were already doing. The best parts of IL felt like that: one big, ongoing session, punctuated by sessions and meals and drinks, where it seemed as though the sky was the limit. And the best part of all is that it didn’t end there. We all took our leave of one another with the same parting phrase: “I’ll see you on the internet!” I’m glad there are so many of you out there that I see there every day, too.

report from the road

I’m still in Denver and theoretically headed back to Meeteetse tomorrow, although word has it it’s snowing there, and is advising no unnecessary for several of the roads I take, so we’ll see.

Yesterday was the hugely successful (I think — people are editing the wiki on a Saturday, which must be a good sign!) Library Camp of the West. There are some photos from the event up already and a few comments in the LCOW FriendFeed room. The event would still be pie in the sky IM conversations between Steve Lawson and me were it not for Joe Kraus at DU, who really got the whole thing going. Many thanks to him, to Steve, to Josh Neff for some great last minute advice, and to everyone who came. I was sorry not to get to spend more time with Matt Hamilton (aka the Brewin’ Librarian) and K.R. Roberto, and I somehow missed meeting Jill entirely, but I hope all these problems can be rectified by making LCOW an annual event.

Last week Kaijsa (also in attendance at LCOW08) and I gave a presentation (twice!) at the Wyoming Library Association conference in Casper. Notes and a handout and a ton of links from the presentation are up online. (And why design your own stylesheet when you can steal one from Jessamyn? That’s what I always say.) It was fascinating and instructive to do the same presentation twice, especially since the audiences in question were quite different in terms of what they knew, what they were interested in, and what, if anything, they had questions about. I’m not entirely sure that standing in front of a bunch of people and showing them stuff on a big screen is the best way for them to learn about technology and its uses, although people did seem to enjoy this IM conversation. I’m thinking about how best to do my presentation on technology for Internet Librarian, and I will let you know what, if anything, I figure out.

working with wordpress, and other lessons in software selection

A year ago or so, when I decided to take on redesigning our library website*, I immediately decided to use WordPress. Although I’ve never actually installed WordPress by myself, I run two blogs that use it. I’d seen a gorgeous implementation of it at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library. I understood more or less how it worked and what you could do with it, which is not something I could (or can) say for Drupal or Joomla or a lot of wiki software. So I dove in: I did a sample site on; I got our IT guy to install the real thing for me; I mucked around with the markup till I figured out how to change colors and get rid of some of the bloggier elements, such as dates on pages, and in the process screwed up a lot of other things that, happily, my friends were able to fix.

These days the site is looking pretty good, I think, and I’ve taught seven or eight other people to add content to it, which I think is awesome. But there are some things that I never considered when I was starting out on this lark (most of my projects start as larks), and while I don’t think I made a bad decision, I thought I’d enumerate some of the difficulties, too.

CMS difficulties
WordPress is blogging software, not content management software. If you don’t want to do anything too complicated, it works well enough, but there are compromises I’ve had to make. Although the Park County Library System is a system, in consists of three very different libraries that are a long way away from one another. It’s 32 miles from my library to the main library in Cody, and it’s 26 miles beyond that to get to the other branch in Powell, and unless you can fly, there’s no way to make those journeys any shorter. I was torn, and still am, by how to represent those differences while still creating a unified website. I chose to make separate pages for each library instead of (as Thomas Ford does) making separate pages for each group we serve. That means that we don’t have a central kids’ place: we have a Cody kids’ place, a Powell kids’ place, and a Meeteetse kids’ place. That means I can’t just say, “Hey, want to know what the library is doing for young people? Go to” I’m not completely sure that balancing those two things is something a real CMS could do better, but I imagine that it might.

This one really threw me for a loop. I have done WordPress upgrades before (all by myself! though with fear and trepidation and many, many backups), but I was not at all prepared for the whole new look of the backend that came with the move from 2.3 to 2.5. A different look for the backend isn’t a big deal for me, and it may not be for you, but for a lot of my website contributors, it’s going to be a big hurdle. I’ve created training materials [Word doc] with circles and arrows and paragraphs explaining what each thing is, and while you might think you could say, “Hey, just look around — the categories are still there, they’re just in a different place,” for some people, it’s a big change, and I’ll need to redo all my circles and arrow for the new format — and that’s a significant time investment

I’ve been ignoring the upgrade because of the time and effort that will be involved, but I sort of know I can’t do it forever. (If someone can explain to me what exactly the security threat of running old software is, I’d appreciate it greatly. I know it’s a threat; I just don’t know why or what sorts of bad things could happen because of the holes in the software.)

Things people want to do that the software just won’t do
I gave up on getting our library card signup form fit into WordPress, which I think is basically okay. But I’ve had people want to create all sorts of things — forms, tables, exactly positioned images — that, for various reasons, just don’t quite work with WordPress, or don’t work with it without them learning some HTML. I love that I can get pretty much anyone who can use Word putting stuff on the website, but it’s hard to know exactly what to tell them when they start to get irked with the limits of WYSIWYG editing. Again, to us learning a few HTML tags may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a leap for people who just want to update the children’s section quickly and get back to their work as very busy children’s librarians.

For these reasons and others, I’ve been trying to create a little community of practice for people using WordPress in libraries. Jessamyn has blogged about it already, but even though I think my mom is the only person who reads this who doesn’t read, I thought I’d repeat it. If you’re at all interested in using WordPress in a library context, from Scriblio to a teen blog space, please join us!

We have

  • a wiki I have always used pbwiki as a free wiki service in the past and would have used it for this, too, but their latest upgrade, I got a little irritated at them, so after shopping around, I chose bluwiki instead. It’s free; it’s ad-free; it’s decent looking, but it’s not as familiar as pbwiki, and I wonder if that means that it will be harder for some people to use.
  • a WebJunction group The new WebJunction has some nice new social features, and a WJ group allows you to set up both a discussion forum and a place to upload documents, so I thought we’d give it a whirl.
  • an email list Well, sort of an email list. I’ve run any number of lists in the past, but there’s something going on with this one that I don’t quite get, wherein messages only seem to go out if you send them from the site. If we don’t get this figured out soon, we may migrate to a different provider. I feel incredibly dumb for not being able to make this work better, which just goes to show you that even if you think you’re thinking about it, software can come back to bite you when you least expect it.

*Our old site, for the curious, looked kind of like this (although significantly better in IE than in Firefox).

library camp of the west: join us in denver in october!

I’m good at having ideas. “We should do an oral history project podcast at my library!” “I should learn PHP in the next two weeks so I can build an application to get people to donate money for furniture for the library!” “I should blog this! [whatever “this” might be]” I am not generally so good at follow through. But today I am happy to announce that, due to the efforts of Joe Kraus and Steve Lawson, one of my ideas is actually going to happen:

Library Camp of the West will be held at the University of Denver on Friday, October 10 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

You can more about how Steve and I have been tossing this idea around for a couple of years over on his blog. Until Steve had the good fortune to get to know Joe, this unconference was so unconferency that we didn’t even have a date or a place. Thanks to Joe, we now have both. Now we just need some attendees and some ideas.

If you can come, sign yourself up on the wiki, and if you have an idea, add it there, too. If this sounds intriguing but you’re still in the dark about wikis, drop me a line at newrambler at gmail dot com. Library camps have traditionally been heavily focused on the technological parts of librarianship, but I don’t think they have to be. The idea of library camp is to get a bunch of smart library people together to share ideas — and maybe even get a barn and put on a show. I hope you can join us!

the 2.0 aesthetic: a draft with some comments

One of the great pleasures of college was that I got to spend time around a lot of very smart (and often very funny) people. It was a lot like the biblioblogosphere in that respect — the biblioblogosphere with cafeteria food. Among the smartest of these friends was the guy who introduced me to the idea of an aesthetic — that is, to the idea that what you wore and what you listened to and what you liked expressed not just a peculiar set of preferences but also, quite frequently, something about your socio-economic status and your politics and your belief system. I was bowled over by this (please remember that at the time I was 19 or 20 and it was probably 3:30 in the morning at Denny’s in Poughkeepsie).

I’ve been thinking a lot about aesthetics lately, and about how thinking about a 2.0 aesthetic is helpful in thinking about some of the thornier — and often unacknowledged — problems in what we want to do in libraries.

First, let us admit, for the purposes of this argument, that we have an aesthetic. We like Gmail better than Hotmail. We think Flickr is a better way to share our photos than Kodak Gallery. We’re opposed to unnecessary file formats, and we generally think CSS is better than tables. Many of us like Moleskins and are Mac devotees. We are RSS bigots. LibraryThing is better than Shelfari! Twitter and FriendFeed are duking it out!

I’m generalizing, of course, and I’ve undoubtedly offended more than a few of you, but can you honestly tell me that you relate to nothing in that list, or in a list like it? I doubt it. I’m guilty on multiple counts.

We have this aesthetic, or these aesthetics, and they play a big part in our lives, since a good chunk of us spend much of our lives in front of a computer, using a web browser. I’m always stunned that there are people who find Internet Explorer an acceptable way to surf the web, but you know what? A lot of people do find it satisfactory.

I worry sometimes that we are so caught up in our aesthetic that we let it guide our decisions without questioning whether what we are doing is really in our patrons’ best interests or is simply what we would want as library patrons. Awhile ago I was putting together a presentation about how to make a website. My initial opening involved showing a bunch of what we would all consider really ugly websites. Then I showed a few slides to someone and realized that, to them, these sites didn’t look that bad. They weren’t picking up on what was, to me, an obvious aesthetic difference between “The Wizard” and, say, the lovely chicago6corners site. What I considered to be obvious and immediate “bad” and “good” weren’t obviously bad and good to everyone.

Aesthetics tend to be associated with looks, but there is more to an aesthetic than just design. In much of the web world, “free” is as essential as rounded corners and valid markup — so important that Chris Anderson is making money on it. Things that are free on the web make up a big part of my life these days. I love Twitter and I love the LSW Meebo Room, and, like most other denizens, I get frustrated when one of them isn’t working. But I wonder how much of that frustration is really justified. I mean, think about it — Twitter is running this huge service for free for all the thousands of us who use it. I have no idea how they’re funding the thing — I assume they’ve got venture capital to spare and are counting on getting us hooked enough that we’ll put up with ads later on, the way that people still shelled out money for cable TV even after it started to have commercials. If we were all paying to use Twitter, I could justify the anger. But we’re not — we’re just expecting people to cater to our addiction to the thing. (Many of us might well be willing to pay, of course, but we’re not, not yet.)

That kind of expectation of entitlement is dangerous. It’s dangerous because expecting things to be free means you’re increasingly willing to let advertising enter your life. And it’s dangerous, as Walt points out, because it means we no longer value people who make things, particularly intangible things. I’m all for Creative Commons licensing — most of what I put on the web comes with a Creative Commons license. But (with very rare exceptions) I don’t write for free to other people’s specifications. I don’t work for free at my library, either. I get paid, and I get paid with public money that has been put aside under the understanding that there are certain things in life that should be out of the control of the market. Anti-commercialism is a big part of my aesthetic, or so I believe. But some days I run up against things that make me question whether my other aesthetic principles are in accordance with the ones I hold most dear.


Last Friday we hosted a little get-together for thirteen librarians from northwestern Wyoming. Meeteetse has a four-day school week, so that meant we could use a school computer lab for the sessions, which turned out to be an even better deal than I thought.

In the morning, the school’s IT coordinator talked to us about viruses, anti-virus software, and basic computer security and troubleshooting. I learned that shortcuts on your desktop take up extra space, and I resolved to get better about scanning, defragging, and generally maintaining our library computers. I think everyone learned something from the presentation. Yay IT guy!

We all went out to lunch at the Elkhorn, and then we returned to the lab so that I could talk a little bit about social software. Here’s where the computer lab set-up came in handy–and where I got to feel that there was a practical reason for using Jessamyn’s slideshow set-up rather than simply an I-hate-PowerPoint reason. The projector (which had worked fine in the morning, of course) decided suddenly that it didn’t want to turn on. So I gave out the handout, told everyone to bring up the presentation page on their computer, and gave the talk with everyone following along. Since their computers were hooked up to the school filtering software, I couldn’t show them my lame MySpace page, but on the whole, it worked pretty well.

I haven’t completely figured out how to give presentations of this sort. It’s hard to know how much detail to use when you know some of the audience wants a “and then you click on the blue box” type of thing and others want a “here’s a bunch of stuff–go out and try it” deal. This time I leaned very much toward the latter, with a lot of “please feel free to contact me if you need to know when to click on the blue box” interjections.

I also installed a Meebo Room on my site thinking that it would be fun to let people play around with it during the presentation. We did not end up using it, in large part because I made the fatal error of assuming that everyone is as fond of multitasking as I am. Several people said, “But I can’t chat–I have to take notes!” It’s good to be reminded of these things once in awhile.

with a little help from my friends

Between the Library Society of the World and Michelle’s post today and the general DIY awesomeness of the biblioblogosphere, I’ve been getting a distinct “we could get a barn and put on a show!” kind of a feeling, albeit mostly about the virtual world. And that in turn has made me think it’s about time I posted about my latest project.

As anyone who has ever looked at the code behind my website will know, I taught myself html in 1999 and had forgotten most of what I learned by the time I got around to recreating the site sometime in 2004. Taking Internet Fundamentals and Design last summer brought me somewhat up to date, but there are still wide gaps in my knowledge. (Someday I promise to go back and fix all my horrid tags and add metadata and, oh, update my ancient resume and. . . well, someday.)

But I never like to let ignorance stand in the way of getting things done accomplished. (Just think, if Columbus had done so–well, I guess fewer people in the Americas would have died from imported illnesses, which would be good–never mind.)

A few weeks ago I decided I was sick and tired of our current county library website. And I was sick of the general inertia about changing it (should we hire someone? what should it look like? should we form a committee? [actually, no one ever suggested that–but you get the idea]). So I thought, the hell with it, I’ll mock something up using, which I also used to make the cap tax website (though in that case we never used its blogging capabilities). I showed it to a few people, and they said, hey, cool. I showed it to my director, explaining that once I had an actual WordPress installation, I could do a lot more. I’d been expecting to ask forgiveness for my general impudence, but instead I was given permission to proceed.

I did, with a lot of help: I got my friend Mitchell to do a WordPress installation for me, since that is one of many things I don’t really know how to do. (Actually, I got him to install WordPressMU, because I was having delusions of like grandeur.) Aaron Schmidt pretty much inspired the whole idea. Steve Lawson answered approximately 900 stupid questions (and may get a few more). Dorothea Salo pointed out (via Twitter) that my faceting on the research page was, to put it mildly, nonexistent. Marc Stratton from the Wyoming State Library sent many e-mails clarifying how to make links to the catalog. A random stranger from Publib whose name I’ve forgotten whose name is Don Yarman and who works for the Delaware County Library in Ohio showed me how to make links to various EBSCO databases. I stole some bits and pieces from websites here and there. Remaining mistakes are, needless to say, my own.

Now it’s about ready for the alpha masses. I’ve got a few things yet to do:

  • add metadata
  • actually learn CSS (going through the CSS file and randomly changing colors until you get the background you want is not really the best way to get stuff done)
  • decide how to incorporate the account I’ve made for the Meeteetse school
  • figure out how to use the MU part, if I decide to go that route (though I’m thinking at this point that that’s overkill)
  • get the header image to look better
  • I’m still not really happy about the Research page, but who is happy about the way they present their databases?
  • surely there’s more

Today my director showed it to a Thomson Gale person who was supposed to be giving us information on how to create direct links to our Virtual Reference Library (me: “uh, actually, I already did that”), and he was apparently impressed. The biblioblogosphere, though, is a tougher audience. So, have at it: here’s the site. There’s not much there yet, but you should get the idea.

women and altruism: preliminary thoughts

I was thinking briefly about submitting a proposal for Five Weeks to a Social Library. I didn’t, primarily because the only social tool my library currently uses is Flickr, and I haven’t done much with it, and because I didn’t feel up to teaching myself screencasting on top of work, school, life, etc.

I just read Meredith’s post about the male/female ratio in the proposals, and the fascinating comments that speculate about why more women may have submitted than men. I don’t know the reason, and I’d be interested to see the survey, if they do one, but I will say this: Five Weeks is the first library conference (or conference type thing) I’ve ever even thought about submitting a proposal to, and I suspect that at least part of the reason I even thought about it was that I knew that the organizers were women.

I went to an all-female camp for about a million years, and I went to a college that, as we liked to say, is a women’s college that lets men in now, and perhaps as a result I’m often inclined toward projects that involve women doing things. But I am also somewhat disturbed by my reaction.

I read all the blog posts and comments and other bits of conversation that delved into the topics women and technology and sexism in librarianship as they were written over the past few months, and I wondered many of the same things. Where were the women on tech panels? Were fewer women being asked, or were fewer volunteering, and if that was the case, was it because of time constraints, or because they didn’t feel “techie enough”? Just who was responsible for representing women? Like many of you, I was pleased by Roy Tennant’s Library Journal column, with the exception of one bit at the end:

We need women in digital library positions. We need their unique perspective and their civilizing influence on the boys’ clubs that many library systems units, professional events, and online forums have become. But more than that, we simply need their talent.

It’s the second sentence in that excerpt that bothers me. I didn’t write about it at the time, but it came back to me now, because it relates to a bit of what bothers me about many of the theories on why more women than men submitted proposals to Five Weeks. It’s what bothers me about my own reasons for almost submitting, in fact.

Do we really believe that women are more civilized than men? As I recall, one of the arguments against women’s suffrage was that women didn’t need to be able to vote; they were already able to affect their husbands’ votes with their civilizing influence. Are women more likely to involve themselves in tech-for-good than in tech-for-tech? That seems more possible to me, but I’m going on hunch combined with Dorothea’s research, which, as she notes, is a bit old.

But regardless of the veracity of either claim, neither one helps the position of women in technology, in librarianship, or in the world. Tenant saves himself, somewhat, by concluding that we need women most of all for their talent. I’d like to live in a professional world in which women were judged first by their talent and only later by the content of their characters. Being a person who is civilized and altruistic is a good thing in the greater scheme of things, but neither one does much for your paycheck, at least if you’re female.

It sounds as though I don’t value good character. That’s not true. But I’d like to live in a world where it wasn’t the thing people thought women brought to the table.