The Network in the Garden – how social media is different in rural communities

So, I think I’ve solved my “I dislike WordPress” problem by using ScribeFire which I got working after a lot of back and forth with my techie people at ibiblio and some help from Ask MetaFilter. Can you imagine your librarian helping you get your blog software working?

Speaking of, I’ve been reading an old but great paper about social networking stuff and how its used differently in rural communities. This is science stuff not just “here’s what we think people are doing on facebook…” and I think you’ll like it. It’s called The Network in the Garden: An Empirical Analysis of Social Media in Rural Life and it’s a numbers analysis of how people are using MySpace in urban versus rural areas. You can also see it as slides prepared for the CHI conference. The slides are quite good at getting some basic points across.

The conclusions are a little surprising to me and I live in a rural area [interesting side note, when I move up the street next month I will no longer be living in a rural area because Randolph has a slightly higher population than Bethel] and social media is still not on the radar of a lot of novice computers users. I think this information will help me help people understand what it’s all about.

Rural and urban people use social media very differently: four of our five hypotheses were confirmed. Rural people articulate far fewer friends, and those friends are located much closer to home. Women occupy a much greater segment of the rural user base than the urban user base. Rural users, particularly rural women, also set their profiles to private at higher rates than urban users. However, both rural and urban users seem to communicate with roughly the same proportions of strong and weak ties.

Side note: I’m going to talk to the principal of the high school today to talk about the dissolution of my job for next year. Not expecting any big changes but maybe at least a little more understanding about what happened and focus on what to do next.

MaintainIT and sustainability in libraries

I got an email this morning from a student who was investigating sustainability in rural libraries. I sent him to the usual places like the The Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship and ALA’s resources for rural libraries but it got me thinking about sustainability generally. The whole tech boom and the “everything is on the internet” idea, really doesn’t affect most rural libraries that much. Sure, there are some communities that are thinking of ditching their libraries as a cost-cutting measure, but libraries still have a strong place in rural communities, often as the only access point to the internet and reading material for adults, young adults and children. They aren’t going anywhere.

They are, however, having a very hard time keeping up technologically and that’s where groups like MaintainIT come in. I have mentioned them before, I am on their steering committee. They’re a project of TechSoup, funded by the Gates Foundation. There are people from WebJunction on the committee. It’s a little bit of the usual suspects. I came to San Francisco for our once a year meeting where we talked about what the next year of the project is going to be like and what has happened so far. MaintainIT, if you don’t know, created “cookbooks” for libraries that gives them assistance with teachnical issues. You can go download them or look at them, they’re free. They’re even Creative Commons licensed so you can repurpose them and use them however you want to. They’re very well done and very informative.

It’s a neat project and yet has a few immediate problems. One, the idea of repurposing doesn’t really go far when what you have to work with is a PDF and you’re dealing with libraries who have never heard of the Creative Commons. Two, the cute language sometimes gets in the way of the really sound and solid technical advice these cookbooks have. Three, each year of the grant program that created this project focuses on different-sized libraries meaning the project doesn’t cohere around a specific userbase. It also serves 18 states, not fifty. Vermont is not one of the states it serves. Neither is Maine. California is one. So, while I really like the project, it’s gotten me very contemplative about sustainability. You see, the grant ends next year. And, like every single grant-funded project that happens in libraries, the big question at this point is “How do we continue to make an impact when we no longer have any staff or funding for it?” And that’s when you hit the idea of community. And that’s where libraries have something sustainable and grant-funded projects, even the best-meaning ones, don’t.

WebJunction was created to be the community that existed after the Gates Foundation library project was no longer providing support. WebJunction, however, still has staff and funding. WebJunction does not so much provide support as it offers an online community of librarians and others who sort of help each other. WebJunction is free but state libraries often pay to have a “branded” version of it. The amounts they pay are in the tens of thousands of dollars. You can see the VT WebJunction here. You can see the regular WebJunction here. I’ve already talked about WebJunction here before so I don’t need to guide you through the differences here (there are few) or point out the OCLC search box on the VT site that tells me that my nearest copy of Jane Eyre is in New Hampshire. I just want to mention that this “solution” has been less than optimal for my particular library region. I hope it has been better for others.

A community has not coalesced around WebJunction in Vermont. However there are communities in the small Vermont towns I work with that center around the library. The librarians I work with, while they’re cognizant of Google and the Internet generally, aren’t aware that there’s anything not sustainable about their libraries. The libraries are packed with people every day. They’re often the only place to even get high speed internet in the town. It’s definitely a pain that it’s hard for them to keep their computers running. However, it’s a bit of a stretch, to me, that they need to join a new community to do that. As much as I like and enjoy the Tech Soup, WebJunction and MaintainIT communities and the people involved in them specifically, I wonder about the best game plan for getting and keeping libraries tech savvy about their own IT needs and environment. Paying a local tech geek to fix some problem (say, like me) certainly doesn’t scale into something that you can replicate nationwide without replicating the cash that pays them. On the other hand, my job isn’t dependent on grant money and I’ve been doing this for almost three years which is coincidentally the life of this particular grant. The difference is, I’ll be doing this job next year and the grant won’t. Unless we can come up with something….

in praise of small town libraries

In New England, in Autumn, there is a lot that is beautiful. Here is a neat article about small town libraries in Western MA with an attractive slide show to go along with it. I’ve made a Flickr set of the libraries I’ve been to with one photo per library. They’re not all small town libraries, but they’re good for looking at as well. [thanks rob!]

a week in the life, august edition

I have a month pretty free of travel and speaking stuff so I’ve been doing more little library work in August. Here are a few things I’ve done this week both here and online.

  • Stopped by the Tunbridge library in Monday to help a woman who is re-entering the workforce brush up on her Excel chops. I had to tell her that while Excel hasn’t changed much, the amount Excel tries to help the user has. That is, there are all these wizards and auto-widgets that try to make Excel easier but have the end result for novice users of making Excel harder. The main problem my student was having, however, was trying to figure out where her missing Word toolbar went and no matter how many times I said I pretty much couldn’t troubleshoot a personal computer problem remotely (and offered alternatives like a good manual or the help files) she sort of couldn’t stop talking about it. I see this fairly often. I suggested that she buy a USB drive so that I could give her homework assignments that she could take home.
  • I talked to the Tunbridge librarian about a Photoshop problem she was having which was actually a much more complicated problem. She has taken photos of flowers for the library’s flower sale, but the way they show up on the screen and the way they print doesn’t reproduce the colors accurately. I showed her how to do some color adjustment in Photoshop but said that tweaking the printer to get things just right was likely overkill for what she was suggesting. Explained how color calibration works. Sometimes good tech support involves telling people that what they want to do is going to take significantly more time than they have budgeted, and suggesting an alternate plan. This sort of time estimate thing is fairly easy for me and seems to be a big difference between someone who is really comfy with computers and someone who is still in the early stages of getting to know how they work.
  • The lady who lived next door to the library brought her laptop over to see if it had any “network card” in it so that she could use the library’s wifi instead of her dial-up. Answer: no, but I explained to her how she could buy one if she wanted to.
  • Visited the Royalton Library to help the librarian figure out why the computer keeps asking for some sort of HP Setup CD when it starts and pops up a zillion messages, sometimes freezing the computer. Figured out how to turn off the thing that requires it. The staff computer also has some sort of virus file (according to AVG) that throws up random pop-ups but we couldn’t remove it even following Symantec’s instructions. Switching to Firefox at least made the pop-up problem go away and bought us some time.
  • No one came to my Tuesday drop-in time. The network was down anyhow, for unknown reasons. The IT company who has the school contract wasn’t sure what the problem was and could give no firm ETA so I went to donate blood instead of waiting to see if anyone would show up just to tell them that our Internet was down. Even though my drop-in time is just “computer time” 90% of the people who come in use the Internet in some form or another.
  • Wednesday I went with my friend Stan to the Tunbridge World’s Fair office. They are using some sort of Fair Management software that doesn’t play nice with the network. I knew I was in over my head so I brought my pal Stan in for a consult. He mostly hammered the software into shape while I cleaned up the office, organized things, and hung up a few years’ worth of ribbons. One of the library trustees who also works part time for the fair bought us lunch and offered us free tickets when the fair starts next month.
  • I stopped by the Kimball Library in Randolph before drop-in time on Thursday. I’ve been working with the librarian who works on the website, helping make the site more functional for the staff as well as for patrons. I showed her how to get her web log files and run them through Webalizer and we looked at he traffic the site has been getting since we added the online catalog a few months back. I also helped her get a Kid’s Page started in the hopes that it will inspire the (very busy) kid/ya librarian to give us suggestions of what to put there.
  • Thursday I had one student at drop-in time, a teacher from the high school who was trying to make a list of donors for the Crafts Center Restoration project in town. Someone had typed the list up originally and she needed to know how to add a name to the list she has on the disk. She wanted to use her computer at the school but it didn’t have a disk drive. So we muddled through that and I asked if she had any other questions and showed her how to make a mailing list using her ISP’s webmail program and also how to attach a photo to an email message.

Meanwhile this week, I’ve been going back and forth with some folks from VLA about changes we’re planning for the VLA website, bought tickets to Nova Scotia for a few talks I’ll be giving there in September, accepted an invitation to join the Steering Committee of the MaintainIT Project, made plans to do some work with Casey and the Scriblio project, firmed up plans for a talk in Rhode Island, passed on a talk in Delaware that conflicted with a talk I’m giving in Kansas, and started making plans for my next week of library visits and my next month of travel/talks. I have a friend who is another local librarian who is working possibly switching her library to an open source OPAC and we’ve been scheming about that. I got my inbox down to single digits by replying to almost everyone who had written me after the NYT/WSJ articles. If I haven’t replied to you yet, I swear I will this week.

That’s the report for now. Today is a day for guests and swimming in the pool and maybe some grilling in the backyard if the weather holds.

On Donated Technology

This week at work I went back to one of the teeny libraries to help them get their three donated computers running. There is a local insurance company that upgraded and gave the library their old computers. For a library that has two computers total, including the one the librarian uses for all her work, this is a boon. Sort of.

I plugged in the computers and turned them on and was greeted with a Win2K registration screen of the “enter your product key” variety. I asked the librarian if the computers came with software and she said “just what’s on them.” You may have read about this part in last week’s post. I asked the librarian to call her friend and see about the product codes and we’d try again. I work at this library about 90-120 minutes a week. This week I showed up and the librarian said that her friend has said the product key was on the side on a sticker. “Doh!” Sure enough, there were 25 characters and I dutifully typed them in. No go. Turns out the sticker on the side of the machine is a Win98 product code and somehow, mysteriously, these computers have Win2k Pro installed on them. No one knows how. I ran down the options with the librarian. 1) Buy an XP license or three from Tech Soup. 2) Hassle her friend to figure out wtf is up with the software on these computers. 3) Wipe the drives and install Ubuntu.

I’m pushing for #3 and the librarian just doesn’t want to do #2. My friend on IM is pushing for a fourth option, a Linux thin client solution where all the machines run off a central server. It’s an appealing idea but I’m not sure if I can even explain it in a way that makes it sound like less of a risk than a life rich with Windows nonsense. So, we start with #3 and figure we have #1 as a backup. I start downloading Ubuntu and it’s going to take two hours, minimum. My class starts in four hours and it’s an hour away, so this project is going to take at least one more week to accomplish. While I’m futzing with the computers I notice that one of them doesn’t seem to be running the monitor correctly, or not at all. I do a bit of brief troubleshooting and determine that both monitors work but only one CPU seems to work to run the monitor. I look in the back of the computer and notice the vent fan is pointed sideways. I have no idea what to make of this. I do know that if we want to get rid of this computer in any sort of approved way it will cost us money.

Meanwhile we’ve bought 50′ of ethernet cable to wire up the computers in the basement (we’ll pay the electrician to drill the hole in the floor and run the cable), cadged a donated switch from a friend, bought three surge protectors and carried three computers and monitors down a narrow flight of stairs. I spend the last 30 minutes of my time there uninstalling IM clients — well not uninstalling them but setting them not to autorun on boot and not autologin when they start. The librarian was getting a bunch of messages for studman1234 when she started her day. She’s a practical gal, but everyone’s got their limits. I didn’t have time to run Windows Update or do any defragging.

I told this story to a local friend of mine who said “Geez, you can buy a new Dell for less than a thousand bucks, what a headache all of that is.” I had to explain to my friend that the library runs on a budget of less than 20K so a thousand dollar computer (and I think it’s more like $500 now) is not really in their universe for now. I’m sure there are well-meaning people who would love to help the library out, but it’s tough to find the time to sit down and compose thoughful and considered letters to them when you’re open 18 hours a week.

So, I don’t want this to be an entire “looking the gift horse in the mouth” post, but mostly I wanted to highlight that there is a range of costs associated with “free.” Most libraries I know don’t even want to take tech donations because they’re concerned that just this sort of thing will happen. On the other hand most of them are running Gates Foudation hardware from several years ago and they’re thinking about upgrades and considering their library’s future technological directions. Meanwhile I bought an old IBM X31 Thinkpad from ebay and I’ve been messing with it in the evenings to get it running the way I like it with an open source OS and software. It cost less than $300, but that’s only really a bargain if I don’t count the cost of my time. Since it’s a hobby project for me, I don’t, but when I’m on the clock it’s nice if things don’t take forever.

WebJunction “redesign” status update

WebJunction is in the middle of a design refresh project, which I guess is somehow different from a plain old redesign. For a site that is becoming a state portal for a great deal of library content nationwide, it’s distressing that only 27% of their survey respondents found the site very easy to use. It also concerns me that for a site that has been around for so long with such esteemed and established partners, they seem to still not be section 508 compliant and accessible, or at least that’s how I interpret “We are in the midst of defining some 508 remediation work“.

The only search box on their home page goes to Worldcat which seems odd considering that many of the WJ members are not Worldcat members. The entire state of Vermont for example doesn’t have many Worldcat member public libraries, but when you go look at the Vermont portal… oh hey they don’t have a Worldcat search box at all! I can’t find a discussion forum on the Vermont portal that’s had any activity since August. What I’d love to be able to do, personally, is figure out which content on the Vermont portal is specific to Vermont and what is just general information that is supposedly of interest to Vermonters. This is unlikely to happen, I think, because then it might be more clear just how little Vermont-specific content is on this portal, a portal that I’m fairly certain the Department of Libraries paid for, and may continue to pay for. The “new” Focus on VT Library Programming section mentioned on the main page is over a year old, so maybe we haven’t renewed the lease.

It is an improvement over my state Department of Libraries home page (yes that’s a 2002 copyright statement, WJs is 2004)? Absolutely. Are big projects like this difficult to do, especially when you need to cater to a group of people with a very wide range of technical abilities? Almost certainly. However I think some problems can’t just be solved by one more web page, even if it does “Improve traffic by enhanced synergy”. WebJunction does a lot of good things for a lot of people, but if you don’t already “get” the web, or if you’re not very tech savvy, WebJunction is harder to use than the average website. This passes on the “computers are hard” myth. This keeps people from getting help, because more and more people help by saying “Hey it’s on WebJunction!” Well, what if WebJunction doesn’t help? The libraries I work with are more likely to have wireless, Flickr accounts or blogs than WebJunction logins. Why? Because those things are easy, and tiny libraries find them to be worth it.

wifi in a libraries, a uk forecast

By 2009, half the libraries in Britain will have wifi according to a new report form the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (pdf). One of the stated benefits is the fact that it will give libraries more flexible use of their space which is a real boon for tiny libraries. Just an update on the tiny libraries that I work with, out of the six that I work with and the one that is in my town, all seven have broadband now and three have wireless. When I started my job three had dial-up and none had wireless. I can’t take credit for all of this happening — I only helped directly with a few projects — but I think for the librarians having someone around to talk to about broadband/wireless really helped them feel more confident about taking the plunge with new technologies. In most cases the libraries are the only public internet in the town, it’s been a hugeleap forward in terms of rural access.

libraries build communities, don’t you think?

Ten leading library experts were posed this question in the Spring issue of [SirsiDynix's] Upstream: "What is the best example of libraries building communities that you have come across or experienced? How will libraries in the future be empowered to play even a greater role in their communities?" One of those experts was me (1.2 MB pdf), and at least a few other people you’ll probably recognize.

While I feel a little weird acting as if this library/community thing was something we’ve all recently discovered, it’s still great to hear everyone’s take on it, and I’m always happy to be able to say nice things about my favorite libraries.

PACs in Vermont, a look at rural connectivity by the numbers

TechnoBiblio asks a question that I’ve also wondered: what’s a good PAC to patron ratio? However, he doesn’t just sort of idly ponder the question, he goes and looks it up and sees what some states are recommending. Our DoL minimum standards for public libraries are online here (pdf, please note the gopher_root in the URL). The minimum standards include these line items: “Has a computer for [staff] access to the Vermont Automated Libraries System (VALS).” and “Offers some free public access to VALS and the Internet.” I can tell you exactly what the libraries near me have, and what populations they serve.

  • Kimball Library, Randolph – serves 6,000 people, five PACs, high speed, wifi
  • Tunbridge Library, Tunbridge – serves 1300 people, two PACs +1, dial-up
  • Baxter Library, Sharon – serves 1400 people, +1, dial-up
  • Roxbury Library, Roxbury – serves 576, 1 PAC, dial-up
  • Ainsworth Library, Williamstown – serves 3200 people, 1 PAC +1, high speed
  • Calef Library, Washington – serves 1000 people, 1 PAC + 1, high speed, wifi

There are 190 public libraries (pdf) in Vermont. Thirty-two serve populations over 5,000. Between all the libraries, they owned 1,122 computers at the end of 2004, according to their 2005 Biennial Roundup (pdf). Out of these 781 were available to the public as of 2005 (pdf). My “+1″ indicator above means that there is a staff computer in the library frequently used by the public; I’m not sure if this is reflected in these stats. 159 of these 781 computers had public Internet access, 130 had high-speed access. This access to computers and fast internet is not distributed evenly. The last library I worked at had eleven of these public computers with high speed access and I’m sure the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington has this many as well.

According to the DoLs Biennial Report Supplment, the 32 libraries that serve over 5,000 people, have 341 public PCs. Also according to this report, these 32 libraries get 60% of all visits to Vermont public libraries. Contrast this to the 40 libraries in Vermont who serve populations of under 1000. They have 50 public PCs total among all of them. Eleven of these libraries offer high-speed access. Many of the libraries did not report their statistics so there is some skewing, but seven of the libraries who serve less than 1000 people have no Internet access at all, and 14 have dial-up.

The total operating income for all public libraries in the state of Vermont is $16,524,383 of which $10,914,150 is spent on salaries and benefits.

what are your state’s filtering laws?

I spoke to a librarian at a rural library today. She works ten hours a week — well she’s paid for ten and works many more. The library has one computer, and that computer has dial-up access. Her board is considering getting her a second computer, so that she can do her work while the library is open and patrons are using the other one. She has also been talking to them about possibly getting broadband access. She and I discussed creating a web page for the library, maybe thinking about wireless in the longer-term future. Money is tight, as you can imagine. When I mentioned thinking about E-rate assistance for connectivity, she wasn’t enthusiastic. I’m not sure if this is because of CIPA or other reasons, but we’re looking into alternatives.

Vermont is not one of the states that has its own filtering laws in addition to the laws laid down by CIPA. What I did not know was that twenty-one states have filtering laws that apply to schools and/or libraries. Some of these just require libraries to have an Internet use policy concerning public/patron use of the Internet, but many go much farther than that. The Utah code, for example:

Prohibits a public library from receiving state funds unless the library implements and enforces measures to filter Internet access to certain types of images; allows a public library to block materials that are not specified in this bill; and allows a public library to disable a filter under certain circumstances. Requires local school boards to adopt and enforce a policy to restrict access to Internet or online sites that contain obscene material.

The National Council on State Legislatures has a page outlining all these state laws with links to the actual state legislation: Children and the Internet: Laws Relating to Filtering, Blocking and Usage Policies in Schools and Libraries