Computers in Library Patrons

The future of library technology is here! SMS services? Facebook apps? iGoogle widgets? Bah! You may as well ask for a steam-powered velocipede! My place of work, the Johnson County Library, is premiering its new technology initiative for patrons: the brain chip!

Welcome to Tomorrow. It’s an exciting place.


World in Motion

Thinking about it some more, I believe my last post was a bit over the top. Yes, I think reading and literacy are important. No, I don’t think playing video games is a substitute for reading. Something pushed my buttons, which prompted me to write that post. I realize now what those buttons were.

If I see one more blog post or comment, one more newspaper editorial or letter to the editor, one more magazine article or TV commentary about how video games or peer-to-peer filesharing or cell phones in public or text speak is going to cause the downfall of Western civilization, I’m gonna barf. Oh, boo hoo! The world isn’t like it was when you were 7 years old! There’s a reason for that: you’re not 7 years old any more! Time passes, things change. Western civilization has survived phonographs, radio, moving pictures, jazz, rock & roll and hip hop. People have been whining about a decline in literacy since the Great Unwashed Masses got access to literacy, and yet society marches on.

You can embrace change or you can whine about it and watch it pass you by, but you can’t stop it. Frankly, I can’t imagine why you’d want to, but then, I love the World of Tomorrow I live in. Of course, when I was 7 years old, the world looked like this, so you can imagine why I love change. Worrying that a change in library services will cause us to head down “the wrong path”? That I don’t love so much.

Et in Arcadia Ego

Steven Cohen links to this piece by Dave Gibson, “Our Public Libraries Are Being Turned Into Video Game Arcades,” in which Gibson laments the increase of video games and movies in public libraries. He sees it as part of the dumbing down of American youth. “It is little wonder that our nation’s literacy rate continues to decline,” he says.

I’m not going to argue specifically about what Gibson says (Jenny Levine does that better than I could in the comments on Steven’s blog), but I will argue about that sentiment in general.

Is the public library “brand” books? Most people I know seem to think it is, and I would agree it’s so. But libraries in general have never been solely about books, and if public libraries were ever about just books, it was certainly long before I was born.

Even if public libraries have been about books more than other forms of media, so what? I know, I know, librarians are supposed to be the champions of the written word, defenders of literacy. Well, I’m not. I mean, I love books, sure, but I love movies and TV shows and theater and music and games at least as much. And I think the idea of libraries being primarily about books–and books being primarily about education and intelligence–is wrong to the point of being dangerous.

For one thing, we need to talk about what’s in the books. Would it be better for the patrons of public libraries to read any books rather than watch movies or play video games? Would it be better for them to read romance novels? Would it be better for them to read Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly? What about comics? Or are libraries only supposed to keep the “classics,” and if so, who decides what the classics are? Is it better for a teen to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even if the book has no personal relevance to them?

We also have to take into account this: reading text is not inherently better than watching a movie or playing a video game. There’s no conclusive proof that it is. There is evidence that different people learn and are engaged by different methods. Some people are more engaged, more provoked to thought, by visual and/or active media, like watching movies or playing video games.

People who read books less than they watch movies or TV, play games or sports, hike through woods, play music, garden, knit, or bake are not necessarily stupid or illiterate. People who read lots of books are not necessarily smart or wise. Let’s get rid of that notion right now.

Libraries can’t be all things to all people. It’s probably not feasible for a public library to also be a gym, a dance studio, and a carpentry workshop. But if public libraries broaden what they offer their patrons, turning the library into a video arcade…well, I think that’s awfully smart.

Faraway, So Close!

In my previous post, I said,

I need face-to-face interaction and conversation. I need spontaneous gatherings. I need occurrences of random escapades and shenanigans. I can get some of that online (the LSW Meebo room is great for that), but nothing really replaces in-person socialization.

Some people may see that as saying I think social software is inferior to face-to-face interaction, so let me expand on my statement: in-person socialization is also no substitute for synchronous and asynchronous interaction through the internet.

There are people in my life that I respect and admire, both personally and professionally. Many of them are spread out across the globe, and it is simply not feasible to have them all in the same geographical space at the same time as often as I need. Being able to interact with them through IM, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, web forums, email and other internet-y ways is so very important to me. My life would be much poorer without these means of interacting with these people in my life. The internet brings these people closer to me when it would otherwise be improbable or impossible.

Plus, there are ways of communicating online that you can’t do as well (or at all) in person. This is why we have prose, printed poetry and essays as well as live storytelling, performance poetry and lectures; there are ways of using text that you can’t do with other forms of communication. Heck, for some people, interacting with others at a distance is preferable to meeting in-person, and social software gives them more ways to do this.

Social software is not a fad or a flash in the pan. That’s absurd. Social software didn’t come about because a few programmers thought it would be cool. It came about because humans are social creatures and they will use any technology they can to interact with each other. That’s why humans have written so many letters and postcards, why we’ve made so many phonecalls, why we’ve invented telegraphy and radios and televisions. Social software is no substitute for in-person interaction, but it adds to the potential and the richness of our interaction in ways that other technologies don’t.

That’s why it’s important for libraries to incorporate “Web 2.0” and other new technologies into their services. Not because it’s “cool,” not because it makes us look “hip” and “modern,” but because people are already using these technologies to connect and communicate with each other. Implementing these technologies offers people more ways to use our services, not less. Isn’t that what we want to offer?

No one method of communication is good for everyone, which is why variety is so goshdarned great. More technology, more social software, more in-person interaction! Bring it all on, says I!

Casting Pods Before Kids

The Promotions people at MPOW decided they wanted to offer patrons a free CD of recorded storytimes before Thanksgiving, with the idea that parents could put the CD on and keep the kids entertained during a long car ride to wherever they were having Thanksgiving dinner. Discussion and planning followed, readers were solicited from our Youth Services staff, and thanks to the digital media and coding savviness of my teammates, today saw the premiere of…

…the Johnson County Library Online Storytimes!

We’re offering a fairly small number of CDs at a few of our libraries, but every track of the CD, read by our talented staff (including one story read by yours truly), is available on our children’s website for downloading. You can also subscribe to the Online Storytimes podcast through Feedburner and iTunes. If we get enough positive responses, through postcards and an online survey, we’ll continue with the online stories. I’m feeling pretty good about it, and I think we’ll get enough good feedback to keep the podcast going.

Check ’em out and let me know what you think. (“The Tortoise and the Hare,” read by my friend and teammate Dave, is one of my favorites.)

Getting the Library Out of the Library

My teammate Amy is a wizard. Today, she added a line of code to our Library homepage so that when you go there, you can add our Library catalog to your IE7 or Firefox search box. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait here.

Back? Good, because there’s more. She also created a widget for your iGoogle page which also allows you to search our catalog. There are now two ways to search our catalog without having to go to our site at all. Pretty nifty, eh?