Library computer seizure makes the bigtime

The incident with the library computers being taken by law enforcement that I mentioned a few weeks back has now made a splash in the big media. Girl’s case had library, cops in privacy standoff. It’s interesting to see how the headline of the same AP article changes depending on who is using it. In another place it’s titled Library confrontation points up privacy dilemma or Kimball Library required warrant to view Brooke Bennett’s record’s

while I was away at ALA, reblogged links not to miss

I’ve got one more privacy related post, but this is just a few things I’ve seen, noticed and liked. My goal for the summer was to catch up and stay caught up on RSS feeds, either through thinning my list, developing better habits or deciding to only follow friends and family, or only work people. I did a little of all of those and have been caught up for weeks now, even through ALA.

a few quick talks from this weekend

I went down to Massachusetts to do a few short talks. They were all very different and most were somewhat reworked versions of talks I’ve done before. I also went to a MetaFilter meetup and had BLTs with Casey. Thanks to everyone who hosted me while I was down in MA. Here are links to the presentations I did.

Now I’m back to a week of teaching adult education classes and ripping plastic off the windows which I am sure will bring about a new ice age.

Teaching Tech – a talk for the Michigan Library Consortium

I gave a talk this afternoon for a one day workshop given by the Michigan Library Consortium about teaching technology in libraries. It was a keynote-ish talk so more “big picture” talking and less “this is how we do it.”

To that end, I did a new-from-the-ground-up talk about technology instruction and even wrote out notes for all of my slides so people who weren’t there could maybe follow along later. As anyone who has seen me speak knows, I tend to extemporanize (sp?) quite a bit so while the bones of the talk are in the notes, I also told a lot of stories about the libraries I work in and waved my hands around a lot. You can see the notes and a mov or pdf of the slides here: Teaching Tech in Libraries: what are we doing?

I’m still trying to find a good way to put slideware talks online without having to re-give the talk and toss it into Slideshare. Big thanks to all the folks from Michigan for being such a great audience and Twitterfolks for giving me some good advice. (go be Flickr friends with Kevin to see more (admittedly, not that fascinating) photos of this event)

“web services” doesn’t mean just getting a better website

Karen Coombs explains why web services isn’t just about a better website and also explains what some of the sacred cows are that keep library websites from being better.

[M]eeting your users where they are isn’t about making them come to the library website. In considering our long term virtual presence plans, the library website is a given. People who come to the site know we exist and want to use our services. To truly be successful we have to get our content into the path of the people who wouldn’t walk through our door (physical or virtual).

I like Karen’s talks about her work website specifically because she’s part of a larger team that all needs to work together to roll out new services to their faculty, student and staff population. I feel lucky because I often have carte blanche in the tiny sites for tiny libraries that I design. I also have very little reach with those sites. That’s okay for what I’m trying to do, but if I had to bring together multiple different stakeholders and make them happy with a website — including those designing, for example, for 800 x 600 resolution screens — I’m sure I’d find it very challenging indeed.

I’m en route to Nova Scotia today, speaking at NSLA and at a Learning 2.0 program with Ryan Deschamps, but when I get back I hope to show off my own collaborative project, turning the Vermont Library Association site into a bloggish group-maintained site from a static single-admin site. It’s gotten so that I have enough WordPress admin login pages to keep track of that I’ve shunted them into their own folder on my bookmarks toolbar. Exciting times!

ALA study: public library funding & technology access

Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2006-2007 Report is out today. I haven’t looked at it yet and was waiting for it to hit the website. The URL for the actual 6MB file is here

http://www.ala.org/ala/ors/publiclibraryfundingtechnologyaccessstudy/finalreport.pdf

If you bookmark the page the document is linked to it will appear as “ALA | 2006-2007 Report” on your bookmark list. While I continue to make the point that tech/web savviness is going to be an important part of being useful relevant libraries in the 21st century, we still put out documents intended to be widely disseminated in PDF format, not HTML This assures that it will be shallowly linked and quoted, if at all, and those links will be hard to track and learn from.

The one news article that I’ve read referring to this report — an AP wire article that I read in the Las Vegas Sun — “Despite Demand, Libraries Won’t Add PCs” is a weird mess of statistics and odd conclusions (won’t add PCs? how about can’t add PCs. Who did this study again? Oh right The Gates Foundation… gee I wonder what their solution to this involves, it better not be Vista. update: the geeky artist librarian agrees). It discusses how popular technology in libraries has become, but also what the limitations are that libraries are facing. The whole article is tailor-made to support a roll-out of the Gates Foundation’s next round of funding which I’m sure will nicely sew up all the loose ends that this article pinpoints.

Except for the fact that more computers means, or should mean, more staff and more space, neither of which get a lot of lip service from technology grantors who would rather give away last year’s software for a hefty tax writeoff. You’ll note that this article says that libraries are cutting staffing so they can afford more computers. I assume then that this is supposed to imply that getting more computers means more freed up money to hire staff. However, we all know, at least out here in rural noplace, that funding remains fixed as does space and what we could really use is an operating system that doesn’t need a 20MB security update every few weeks and a browser that isn’t out-of-the-box vulnerable to a huge range of exploits that leave our computers barely working. The good news is that we can get both of those things and we don’t have to wait for someone to loan us money to do it. Sorry for the slightly bitter tone, I’ll chime in with some more facts from this study once I’ve gotten a chance to read it.

Me at work, seniors learning computers

Me at Work

Michael blogged about this last week I figured I’d add some more information. These are two students of mine that I visit irregularly at the Tunbridge Public Library. They’ve got pretty good computers and sharp minds but don’t know the first thing about how to navigate a file system or compose a message to save for later. We sit down and talk about how to do the things they want to do. The last time I was there, I made a little video and you can see it on YouTube.

I feel like I can just say “blah blah insert digital divide lecture here” but really, the library is doing an invaluable service here, and the job I have isn’t even paid for by the library. I’m an employee of a local technical high school that happens to take its outreach mandate very seriously and sends me to these places that happen to be libraries. If I had any tips for people wanting to do this same sort of thing, here they are.

  1. Encourage people to get laptops. I’m not a real Dell fanatic, personally, but because of them laptops aren’t as fiendishly expensive as they used to be. I really liked that my students were both using Macs because a) it’s the same kind of computer that I have and b) I find them much easier to use for someone who has never used a computer before. No need to start a flame war, but I’ve been doing this for several years and I’ve observed that my Mac students are happier with their computers. You can save people serious money if they have a laptop and they can use the library’s internet service occasionally and not have to pay to get broadband at home.
  2. Invest in wifi. If students have their own computers then you can teach them about the internet using their own computers. No matter how awesome our public access computers are, they’re not identical to the computers our patrons have at home, they’re just not. Students can learn things on the computers and then take them home and practice the exact same things.
  3. Solve problems. I used to teach a basic email class at the public library I worked at. It went great. However I would find that time and time again people would come to the class and sit through it because they had one loosely email-related question to ask. They didn’t even need an email class but there was no other way to get five minutes of dedicated staff time to ask a computer question. Consider being available in a way so that people who want a class get a class and people who just have questions can ask them. Also stress that they should come in with a problem to be solved, not just “I want to learn about computers” People who just want to learn about computers should probably go to a class.
  4. Larger groups help everyone learn. My two students got along great and it was excellent to have them learn from and teach each other as well as learn from me. Having multiple students (not a ton, maybe just two or three) encourages people to see tech support time as a limited resource, lets people see other people’s computers and their problems in a larger context, and makes computer time more sociable and less like school. Also I think people are less likely to let their technostress get the best of them if they are not in a private session with you.
  5. Keep it regular and keep it brief. Have set times when you offer tech support help. This keeps people queueing their questions to bring to you, can free up other less-savvy staff to refer people to you appropriately and the time limit means people will ask pressing questions first and prioritize their own concerns.
  6. Share with staff, create a FAQ. If I solve a problem that I see frequently (for example: how do I print just part of a web page) I’ll often share the solution with the staff so that they can know how to help people who come in with the same problem.
  7. Know when to say when. Unfortunately, the biggest problem in my area is that people need help at home, figuring out their printer, or their network or their desktop machine. I decided early on that going to people’s houses would not be part of my job. There has been a rare case where a patron got DSL and wasn’t sure how to do the self-install and I’ve traded help for a free dinner or something. Usually I’ll refer people to the professionals when they need help either buying equipment, installing something at home, or fixing a complicated problem with some legacy frankenstein PC. It’s too easy to own all of people’s future problems if you get too involved with some of these situations and I’ve sometimes had to tell people that I won’t be able to keep working with them unless they get a more stable computer or start practicing better computer hygeine.

Those are just some top-of-the-head ideas. My library background doesn’t make me special in this regard. Anyone who is okay dealing with people and knows technical stuff well could be part of an informal tech support program at your library.

are librarians innovators? do libraries innovate?

I read the web4lib mailing list in RSS format. It’s fascinating because not only is there a lot of good advice, and a lot of familiar faces, but I also learn a lot in terms of what people do and do not know about technology which helps me do my job. There are also some more thought-provoking longer threads sometimes about things like the 2.0 bandwagon, whether Twitter/Facebook type applications are a flash in the pan, or the recent thread about whether libraries innovate.

It all started, I think, with a lita-l mailing list topic that I didn’t see concerning the “ultimate debate” happening at ALA. The event was blogged on the LITA blog and debated a lot on web4lib though the thread is sort of all over the place. And then the topic was picked up by other blogs, which someone on web4lib graciously added to the mailing list as a list of links.

I wonder about the topic myself. The libraries I work with around here are very innovative, but mostly in stretching a super-small [usually five-figure] budget and rarely in technological ways. However, when you’re the only free internet in town, taking a step like offering free wifi when the library is closed, or having a way that people can use your computers to download ebooks checked out from other libraries in other states seems pretty innovative indeed.

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.

file under: big big datasets

I’ve been chitchatting with Simon as he’s been compiling and data-cleaning his set of LoC authority records. He’s at ALA now, and the data has been released into the wild. There’s something that warms my little librarian heart getting to read raw MARC on my own little laptop. Try it yourself!