a separate post – talk about my new job

OpenLibrary front page

I promised to write about this a few days ago and it’s been, quite a week. Short version: starting May 1st I took a job doing user support for Open Library. It’s very part time, very fulfilling and a lot of fun.

Longer story: MetaFilter, my internet home for over a decade and my employer for almost that long, has been going through some challenges. There was a severe financial downturn (the site is nearly 100% advertiser supported, allowing them to have nearly eight full time employees) and staffing was going to have to be reduced. You can read about some of that happened on Search Engine Land or Matt Haughey’s post on Medium because this was basically a weird “I wonder what happened at Google?” situation. We’d been facing decreasing revenue for about eighteen months and things weren’t improving. As the person in charge of running the site but not managing the money aspect of it, the last year and a half had been really bad for morale. Not knowing if your job was going away, getting gloom-and-doom reports from on high, not being able to plan for the future because you don’t know if there will be a future, are just destabilizing and not allowing me to do my job to the best of my ability. I have a longer version of this that I’d be happy to explain over a beer or two, but that was the general gist.

And ultimately, as much as I loved what I’d built–Ask MetaFilter is one of the best Q&A sites around, bar none, the moderation team is the best group of moderators there is, period–my “career goals” such as they are weren’t with website moderation, they were and remain with libraries. So when stuff started getting hairy in late 2012, I decided I needed a non-MetaFilter hobby, one that was library related, and I decided to talk to the Internet Archive about helping out with Open Library. Open Library, if you don’t know, lends ebooks worldwide. Worldwide. It’s a cool project.

I hadn’t known at the time that Open Library was a bit of a ghost ship, being kept alive and online but not really in active development. I put my head down and just started answering emails, reporting bugs, being the change I wanted to see in Open Library. And once the writing was on the wall at MeFi, that I could stay on as the oldest employee but in a work situation that was more “Everyone works all the time” which was no longer something I wanted to do, I talked to the Archive about getting an actual job-job. I made a data-based pitch “Look, I answered 7000 emails last year and rewrote the help pages and FAQ, user support is probably something that either needs more volunteers or a paid staff member” and they agreed to take me on as a part-timer to keep doing what I was doing, and maybe do a little more.

So I still answer emails, but I also attend staff meetings (via Skype) and have the keys to the Twitter and the blog. It’s weird working in a free culture type of place but still working with Adobe’s DRM nearly every day. I made a graceful mod exit from MetaFilter and I still continue to hang out there, because why wouldn’t I?

Long range I’m not sure what my plan is. I’ve got the same adult education job in my small town in Vermont and don’t plan to leave that. I still write a regular column for Computers in Libraries and I’m still on the road doing public speaking stuff about once a month (contact me if you’d like me to come speak at your event) which I may ramp up depending on how this all goes. I still have a lot of Vermont libraries to visit. I’m trying, despite my tendency to overwork, to take the summer at least partly off. And one of the things I want to do, oddly enough, is spend more time on my blog, writing down more of the things I am working on, in a place that’s mine and not MetaFilter’s.

That’s the news. I’m excited to get back to working more with libraries, all kinds of libraries.

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Bridging the digital divide in more ways than one

laying fiber in braintree vermont

I was at the Lake Superior Libraries Symposium last week talking about the digital divide. The theme was “bridges” which was perfect because “librarians bridging the digital divide” is the subtitle of my book, now three years old. The talk was a variation of the talk I gave in Michigan, plus it had slides. You can check it out here: Bridging the Digital Divide. I had a wonderful time in Duluth and have to thank the organizers for putting on a really excellent one-day symposium.

This image, though it looks super old timey, is actually from late 2012 and is what it look like: two guys laying cable through the woods using draft horses. It’s a very dramatic image just because of the colors but I think it also shakes people up a little “Wow, there really are places in the US that aren’t there yet….” I talked a bit about the culture of learning new things and about our roles as not just teachers but emulators of good technology practices.

And it was timely because I’ve spent this week enmeshed in terrible, confusing, and poorly designed websites as a result of a job shift. I’ll talk about this more in a separate post, but in an effort to get more librarianing in my life, I’ve moved on from MetaFilter and taken a small job at the Internet Archive working for Open Library. This involved a shift in health insurance and possibly some unemployment payments (going from full-time to part-time). And, since this sort of thing is all done digitally nowadays I’ve gotten to experience first hand what it’s like to feel beaten down by technology when you feel like your money or your livelihood is dependent on it.

I am fine, nothing is wrong with me, I have health care and am still well-paid, but the creeping dread that came over me when I was worried “Did I fill this out correctly?” “What does that phrase mean?” “Why isn’t this Submit button working?” and the inability to get timely help or support via the website (I seemed to always start these processes 20 minutes after the phone support ended for the day) just made me frustrated with our culture of bad technology and poor user interfaces and made me sad for people less savvy than me having to navigate these waters and being worried that maybe the problem was them. As always, we have so far to go.

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Free tech learning resources – short list

screen shot from Chinese advanced email handout

I mentioned back in January that NYPL has said they were putting all of their handouts for their tech classes online. It took a while for them to get that sorted, but they’re online now and worth checking out. There is rarely any good reason to reinvent the wheel in tech instruction. While computers and the internet have changed a great deal, many old favorites like Mousercise still deliver. There are a lot of things people point to for good tutorials and lessons, but very few that have good information in a clear and easy to understand way. For anyone who is looking to actually spend money on tutorials, Lynda.com is the definite go-to. Otherwise the short list of worth-a-damn sites continues to be short.

If you’re on facebook there is a good group there that is low traffic where people regularly swap ideas for this sort of thing (or answer questions) called Technology Training and Libraries

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In which I get to “do whatever workshop you want”

Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 13.51.04

One of the other great things about the Rural Libraries Conference is that, in addition to giving a keynote presentation, I was also given a workshop slot to … basically do whatever I wanted. One of the things that I think is frequently missing from conference planning is some way to help people with follow-through on the ideas they get or the things they want to try or even keeping in touch with the people they meet. Conferences are often a lot of fast-paced learning and mingling and fun and weird food and odd schedules and then people come home and sleep it off and it all seems like a distant dream when they get back to work. I’m sure this is triply true if you’re at a conference someplace wacky like The Grand Hotel.

So I did a very short presentation called Maintaining Momentum and talked about some ways to keep the energy up. You can read the (very short) slide deck [pdf, link fixed!] to get an idea of what it was like. I did something I basically never do which was get people split up into pairs and give them a buddy to check in with in two weeks, with little handouts to swap email and ideas. We went around the room and talked about things we’d seen that we liked and might want to implement (in the library and just in life generally). I also got an email list of everyone’s contact info (note for future talks: tell people to print legibly) and learned to use MailChimp myself to send a one-time-only “Hey get in touch with your buddy” reminder which was part of what I’d vowed to learn.

It was a great presentation, people were really into it and seemed to enjoy having space for a bit of a meta-discussion about the conference while at the conference. I’m really happy I went outside my usual comfort zone to put it together, very appreciative of the great folks who showed up and gratified that people didn’t talk all the way through this one (except when they were supposed to).

screenshot from momentum talk

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doing it right when everything is going wrong

Me at the Rural Libraries Conference

Apologies in advance because this isn’t really about libraries as much as about conferencing. Maybe more of an etiquette post than anything.

I skipped April. Not on purpose. I was supposed to go to TXLA and came down with a weird lingering flu. I’m usually a “push through the pain” person but not enough to get on an airplane with a fever and potentially make other people sick. No one needs that. So I missed TXLA which was a huge bummer. They were incredibly understanding about it. And then there was a week of school vacation where I teach so I decided to hunker down in MA and get well and make sure I could make it to the Rural Libraries conference in Michigan. Upstate Michigan. The UP, where it was still frozen enough so that the ferries we were supposed to take to Mackinac Island were possibly not running. So now I was in a situation where I was rarin’ to go but the conference might not happen at all.

My main contact, Shannon White from the Library of Michigan, did an amazing job with a very difficult situation. She gave low-drama email updates (to me but also all attendees) as we got news from the ferry and told me what the timeframe was in case we’d have to cancel. When I arrived in St. Ignace (via Michael Stephens’ place, so great to see him) the weather was terrible and the flight we were supposed to take was cancelled. Many people including us were stuck there overnight when we would have preferred to be at the conference venue, the Grand Hotel. I was put up in a decent hotel and fed dinner and we discussed jockeying for ferry positions the next morning. I had warned everyone in advance of even taking this speaking gig that I was not a morning person and someone graciously got up early and got a timestamped ferry ticket for me for later in the day. This was a huge deal.

The Grand Hotel is one of those places that is fancy but also deeply committed to service. All of their 385 rooms are different. When I finally got to the hotel at about 1 pm on the day I was speaking, I was put in a crazy-looking suite that overlooked the water. Which was terrific except that there was a crew of hotel-opener people (the hotel officially opened the day after the conference closed) that was going over the front of the place with leaf-blowers and lawn tools and who knows what else. I moved my room to an equally quirky suite on the back of the hotel where I rested after a day and a half of on-again-off-again travel.

My talk about the 21st Century Digital Divide was done in an oddly-shaped room without the benefit of slides. I’ve talked about it elsewhere (short form: people who could not see or hear me talked through it) but it was a suboptimal setup which we all tried to make the best of. I got a lot of positive feedback from the state library folks despite some of the shortcomings and they made a special reminder announcement before the next keynote about not carrying on conversations while people were speaking. I heard it was great, I was asleep. My workshop the next day about maintaining conference momentum went really well and, again, I got great support from the organizers as well as the hotel when I decided I needed last-minute handouts.

All in all, despite a situation where there were a lot of things that were out of people’s control, the conference was memorably great for me personally and I think for a lot (most?) of the attendees as well. As much as people made joking “Never again!” comments, there was something about working together in unusual settings through various kinds of adversity that brings people closer together. I felt well-taken care of and appreciated as well as well-compensated. And, personally, I had a great time. The people I talked to all felt the same. Thanks, Library of Michigan.

A few links for people who like that sort of thing

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