Text of Library Camp talk

What is the opposite of Pecha Kucha? What you are getting right now, is what.

When I give talks people sometimes come in before it starts and ask if I have any handouts so they can leave and go to another talk. As a result, I've stopped providing handouts. I do however have six "talking points" that you can read ahead of time, if you need to go to lunch early or go check your email. Heck, I'm checking my email right now.... I will not read these to you, you can read them to yourself. Yay reading.


I made a deal with myself that if I was going to opt to travel and give a lot of presentations in 2009, I would refuse to phone it in. (apologies to people who got previously phoned-in talks) My goal was and is to write something new every time. That said there a few images I've used in my talks that are someow iconographic to the topics that I talk about generally. This is one of them. Meet Don and Judy and the random kid who put herself in this photo. This is the library that I work at.

People like to think that this is what technology at libraries is like because these people are smiling and using macs. We know that this is a Norman Rockwell version of library technology. These people are not frowning, hollering, crying, fighting with you, trying to do windows updates, getting scammed by con artists, getting scammed by Elsevier, or surreptitiously surfing for pornography. They are surrounded by books. This is a library. However, they are trying to use something in the library that is less predictable, less quantifiable and less "what the hell is going on with this thing"able than a book, they are using technology. Computers/phones/smartchips/whatever.

Maybe they are using their technology to look up a book (actually they are not because we are not automated. I wanted to wear a t-shirt today that said "ask me about my automation project" but it's too depressing and this is INSPIRING time). Actually I think they're mostly trying to write email. Let's see... [links to video]


So... Tolstoy said some variant of "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Here's a pretty grumpy Tolstoy for what it's worth. In 2009, people who are offline are offline for a reason. We also say this about people who live in Vermont. They're here for a reason, or they're here because they can't get out. (you can speculate on which one I am) This presents challenges, which you can alternately call "opportunities" or "problems" depending on whether you're a half full or half empty sort of person

So. Technology and technology instruction is one of those sorts of projects that doesn't scale well (but people lie and tell us it does; those people are trying to sell you something, or give you a big grant that they can take as a tax write off. I think my anger at those people is one of the thigns that fuels my boundless energy). What I mean is, when you buy and process 30 books at once instead of one at a time, you can save time and money. When you teach 30 savvy computer users how to use the catalog or the internet (I teach adult education classes in the evenings in rural Vermont so I'm not just blowing smoke here), you can save time and money.

However, when you teach 4 totally novice computer users how to use a computer -- four users who each want to do something different, one wants facebook, one wants email, one wants to sell her guitar and one wants to look at condos in Florida -- that process doesn't scale so well. There are social safety nets set up in both of our countries for people who, for whatever reason can't read, work, feed themselves or stay healthy. There is no similar safety net for people who can't use technology and in 2009, not knowing how to use technology is becoming sort of a non-option. [and yet, 50% of the world's population has never made a telephone call]

As I've said often and elsewhere: you just can't make a web page to teach totally novice users how to use a computer or the internet (and you damned well sure can't make them watch a webinar, and if I'm within earshot you better not make them hold the phone up to their ear while they watch an online powerpoint presentation about how to do something with technology...) Or can you?


One of the websites I show people over and over is a mousercise page, well more like 50+ pages, which was made by a library in Florida. I can sit down a student who has never used a mouse before and if they can read, they'll get the basics of click, double-click, right click and click-and-drag by the end of an hour, usually quicker. I sometimes think that not having a human nearby to say "but WHY?" can accelerate that process. I can be a bit of a borg in that way and I tell people right off the bat "I can not help you with your emotional problems with the computer; I can only solve technical problems"

For most of us, design is invisible until it fails. That is not my line. The fascinating thing about the 2.0 universe, to me, is how people claim that in the future, things we'll be so well-designed we'll be able to use them almost without thinking. And yet they've been saying that for a while now and it's never been true. They said that about the Mac OS "oh hey you just put a file in the trash, it's so INTUITIVE..." and people say that about Ubuntu.... They say it about little kids and the OLPC (have you tried to even open those things?).... And for tech people like me, it's sort of true. For novice users, every time you describe a computer task as "easy" you're losing their attention. I try to say "simple" [as in "the opposite of complicated" as in "you can do this"] but it's not much of an improvement.

But let's look at this ease-of-use thing. For techie people, it's true. Better interfaces save me time which is ultimately saving me money, but I think saving time is good enough. Gmail saved my LIFE (I feel like) when it made a design decision and hid all the email addresses in the header from my friends who don't know how to use BCC. I had employers (I am looking at you, educational testing service) who would cc an email to 800 people, or try. Gmail made me learn to forgive them, and move on.

Things that change quickly on the screen are great for me, less great for Farmer Bob who reads websites from left to right, top to bottom. He doesn't know to scan the pages for the red or yellow warnings. He doesn't know that the blinky things are ads. At least not until I tell him. And I've probably told many of you this particular joke before, but one of the questions I need to answer from women, mostly older, who I help sign up for email accounts is "Why does Yahoo think I'm fat?"


It's a question with a lot of different answers... I could explain how advertising drives the Internet and how we just told Yahoo how old you are and where you live and even though they don't know what you weigh there are certain insecurities that all advertisers love to exploit.... Or I could explain how to block ads with Firefox and all you need to do is install this browser ["what's a browser"] and Greasemonekey ["a what?!"] and some scripts [*eyes go blank at word "scripts"*]... or I could say "Those are ads, they're not important, let's go find your mail..." and we take off like intrepid explorers and I feel a little dorky telling them to click "inbox" to get to their email, since they have, after all, already logged in, but I hold back a lecture about advertising and capitalism and click-throughs because I'm trying to solve her problem, not mine.

Most of the people I work with do not know or care about the Internet except as a hurdle to overcome. Some of them have an idea of how awesome it can be. The whole idea of "internet famous" doesn't even make sense to them and the number of friends I have on facebook makes them look at me as if I'm a robot, not as if I'm cool, or even just popular. At the end of the day, or the drop-in time, I have to reckon with the fact that what I'm telling these people about technology may be all they know outside of what the read on TV or in the newspaper. The New York Times has sixty editors on Twitter but that doesn't mean that they know enough to say "this virus is dangerous for WINDOWS USERS ONLY" when they write their articles. That's where we come in. We've always had the decent bulshit detectors. I tell people all the time "Well I have no idea, but I can look that up..."


We know these things, but sometimes we're trying to figure out what to do with this sort of knowledge (which is, as we know, power) and the responsibility that others put on us and that we put on ourselves. You've been given these gifts because you're expected to do something awesome with them. This may be kept hidden from you because sometimes it's hard to know what our profession wants from us. I'd encourage you to read the linked article about the ALA Emerging Leaders program. People involved thought that ALAs project to try to create and nurture new leaders within ALA -- an initiative started by Leslie Burger, yes I know I'm in Canada -- was a great way to network and at the same time most of them felt like ALA gave them projects to do that weren't supposed to lead to real change, that what they learned about working within the organization was to expect to not be listened to and to not be able to make a difference. "You have a room full of folks who are energized and the energy didn't go anywhere." Too bad, yes? And not unusual.

I know the idea of a sleeper cell raises oogy boogy images of terrorism and the hatching of schemes, but I see a lot of us here and in the Library Camp world generally as sleeper cell world changers. We don't always get together and do something like hammer out The Darien Statement or go remove restrictions on all our public domain images (as Cornell did this week) and we don't even all agree with each other on everything. But we do have sort of a shared vision of a more open future for libraries and a maze of twisty passages, all different, of getting to it. And a long time before we may see all of our dreams realized.

The Future

It's okay not to be in charge. It's a good idea to realize when you're not in charge. While I encourage everyone to have a well thought out set of beliefs about technology, technology planning and the future of libraries (in the event that everyone higher on the org chanrt than you drops dead or *gasp* asks for your opinion on something) we have to be cognizant of what things we can change and what we can't and then try to move more things into the first group from the second, gently. I don't care about Library 3.0 because I'm not living in a library 1.2 world yet in Vermont. So, while it's fun to think about and maybe talk to you guys about, me talking that crazy moon language back home scares people and makes them not trust me. They think I'm going to take them on a rollercoaster ride that's more scary than fun.

And that's most of the balancing act that we're doing now. We're all smart enough to know that we're going to see more digital media and less print media. We're going to see more content coming from subscription models, we're going to need more tech skills and we'll need to be able to make decisions more quickly. However, we should also be confident enough in that future that we don't need to argue it with every small-minded vendor or naysaying colleague. We're becoming more than library geeks, we're turning into data geeks which is, to my mind, even a little bit more fun because it means we can hang out with each other online, push big globs of data back and forth and turn it into things that genuinely help other people solve problems.

Bill McKibben (a local guy I enjoy reading about, and then especially enjoy when I see him running through airports) said "The only genuinely subversive thing you can do is have more fun than other people. So get to it!"

Librarianship both is and is not sexy. Exploit that. Go be secretly awesome. Then tell someone.


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