The Government is Toast, but MCNY is Still Here

Or, as CNN  put it in today’s news:

Washington (CNN) — The game of chicken failed. Neither side blinked. Now millions will pay the price.

Americans watched a colossal failure by Congress overnight and the shutdown of their government.

For weeks, the House and the Senate blamed and bickered, each claiming they’re standing up for what the public wants.

In the end, it led to the one outcome nobody wanted — one that will stop 800,000 Americans from getting paid and could cost the economy about $1 billion a week.

“Agencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations,” the Office of Management and Budget said in a note it sent to federal employees.

This is the first time the government has shut down in nearly 18 years. The last time it did, the stalemate lasted 21 days during the Clinton administration.

Which, we all remember, was initiated by a southern fried lunatic named Newt Gingritch (GA-R). History repeating itself? Well, yes, as far as I can tell, it is. But city and state governments are still running, and while that is eminently useful, the two entities are not really interchangeable.

This situation is a bit nerve wracking as MCNY gets a fair amount of support from student loans which are run through the federal government, but today and for the forseeable future, we are here.

And because we are here, we have a new display going up shortly. Here’s a look at the stack of books we pulled from the shelves:



As you can tell, the theme is “Monsters: Real & Imagined.” I’ll post another pic when it’s properly arranged.


“Library Rules”, But From Which Library?

Jason Fried offers this bit of wisdom on the subject of office management:

 When visitors come to our office, one of the first things they notice is how quiet it is. Naturally, one of the first questions they ask is “how do you keep it so quiet?”

My answer is “library rules.”

Everyone knows how to behave in a library. You keep quiet or whisper. You respect people’s personal space. You don’t interrupt people who are reading or working, learning or studying. And if you need to have a full-volume conversation, you hit a private room.

So if you want to keep things quiet at the office, treat it like a library. It works surprisingly well.

Well, I’m glad to hear it. Unfortunately, I take a look around at the end-of-semester madness and I wonder: which library is he talking about? Not mine.

I want to be clear and fair. I’m tickled that Fried thinks so highly of the conditions that a library is (ideally) supposed to provide. It’s ostensibly a place to study, to learn, to think, to research. That requires an environment conducive to such things. When we think of a library we generally think of such a place. Open books, clicking of keyboards, the hushed discussions between patrons as they look over the shelves. It’s a traditional image and traditional images die hard.

Not my library. Not during the last week of the semester (any semester). Not when a significant portion of our students are too rushed with deadlines and finals, too stressed out by their personal lives, too shy (or proud) to ask for help early in the semester when projects are announced, to think of a library in the terms that Fried does.

More than a few of the comments reflect this disconnect between the ideal and the facts on the ground. The truth is that noise is part of life and there is no way to shush people into oblivion. You can’t kick noisy folks out of the office–although technically, you can–but what kind of message does that send your employees and coworkers? For that matter, kicking really noisy folks out of our library has happened but it doesn’t need to be done very often. There’s a staff member on call nearly every minute of the day, and having that presence circulating around the floor does keep the disruptions to a minimum.

It gets even messier. The stories in the comments show clearly that not “everyone” understands the rules of the library the way that Fried does. Behavioral standards differ between neighborhoods, which brings up class, social status, and the differences between public and private space, all of which goes to defining one’s knowledge of library rules, or even the fact that there are such things as library rules. Anyway, that’s another post.

Again, I appreciate the sentiment and admire the effort. We just can’t always replicate it here.

Linking Library Data: A Panel Presentation

Last night the New York Technical Services Librarians (NYTSL) held its panel presentation at the New York Society Library. If you weren’t there, you missed a fascinating evening in a gorgeous space (with impeccable catering).

The speakers were Cristina Pattuelli, Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Science, Pratt Institute; Ingrid Richter, Head of Systems & First Ledger Project Coordinator, New York Society Library; and Trevor Thornton Senior Applications Developer, Archives, NYPL Labs, New York Public Library.

Mark Bartlett, Society Head Librarian, made a few opening remarks about the history of the institution: the founding of the library in 1754 as a private repository which was open to members only. The Society Library’s membership has included names like John Jay, Herman Melville and Willa Cather. (Their website gives a fuller description of the institution’s history.)

Ingrid  Richter spoke about the New York Society Library’s First Charging and Early Borrower Ledger project.

The starting point for Ingrid’ project was a wealth of original material dating from 1789-1792 that provided some amazing information about the books that luminaries such as Aaron Burr, George Washington, and John Jay checked out while in New York. As the only materials used in the project involved raw data transcribed in the original ledgers, the main goals included creating images which were user friendly and promoting knowledge of the charging ledgers.

Step one involved converting TIF images of the pages. Automated batch commands in Photoshop created thumbnails which were then converted to JPGs.

Step two was the creation of spreadsheets, using Excel. A team of four librarians converted the ledgers into the sheets in question to track data locations.

Step 3 involved creating database in File Maker Pro, imported all spreadsheets into raw data over 2k entries. This database allowed a better, more comprehensive type of reporting than spreadsheets.

Step 4 involved tracking people. What were people doing? Ledgered information allowed the tracking of birth and death dates (for example) and the two databases were linked together by linker web addresses together. The result was a count of borrowing records, counts of checkouts, borrowing dates, etc. Finally, a database of book titles was created to define what happened to book information. Each book had its own database.

Web pages were created to link back to raw data about books. A pages database was visualized as a finding aid for people who might want to read the ledger page by page. HTML sounded simple enough but they finally decided that static web pages were preferable as the metadata needed to be reliably locatable. A bulk reading utility made everything more convenient.

Check out the full exhibit on the library’s website.

Also, check back tomorrow for the rest of the presentation summary.


Undying Faith in Technology

James Howard Kunstler questions a very real quasi-religous fatith in technology:

The Aspen Institute is supported by a bizarre array of corporate donors and individuals ranging from the secretive, devious, extreme right-wing Koch brothers to Goldman Sachs, to Michael Eisner to Duke Energy. The mission of the Environment Forum is divided about equally between publicizing the gathering horrors of climate change and promoting an ethos of wishful thinking that all the problems of mankind will yield to technological rescue remedies.
It’s a very odd mix of hard-headed science and the most dismaying sort of crypto-religious faith in happy endings, tinged with overtones of corporate log-rolling and government propaganda. The basic message is: the world is hopelessly fucked up but thank God for technology. There is not even a dim apprehension that many of the aforementioned vexations originate in technology itself, and its blowbacks. Alas, this is about the best that the American intelligentsia can do right now, collectively, and it explains why we have such uniformly impotent and clueless leadership across the board in America, from the White House to the CEO offices to the diploma mills to the news media and every other realm of endeavor where thinking realistically about the future might be considered valuable.
The implication is that technology is good for its own sake: without it, where would we be? Kunstler follows up this question more fully in his new book “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation“, which I’ve just finished. A fair portion of it is a re-hash of his previous volume, “The Long Emergency,” which, he says, we are now finally dealing with. Essentially, if the peak oil production numbers of 2005 were not the official starting gun, the financial crash of 2007-2008 was. We are now officially in decline, and things will only get stranger from this point on.
It’s worth keeping this point of view in mind, even if you think of Kunster as a doom and gloom crank (I don’t.) Kunstler notes in the (new) book that even libraries, for instance, are now devoid of the gadgetry that kept them running before the advent of cheap, ubiquitous electricity. Card catalogs are largely gone, more of what we have to offer students and researchers are electronic in nature, namely databases, e-books and free Wi-Fi and internet connections.
On the one hand, he’s right. We have completely changed over to the new stuff, mostly because we have had no choice in the matter. We keep ourselves financially solvent by changing, adapting, improving services. If he turns out to have been premature in his estimation of what the quality of life in the next thirty years entails and we do somehow manage to tech our way out of the decline he says we’ve entered, then we’ll still be needed. If not, we’ll be needed even more.
I expect the truth will fall somewhere in the middle, but in the mean time, we’re still tagging our collection with those fancy RFID chips and adding new databases to our electronic stable.

Bookless Libraries Should Provide Cultural “Third Space”

David A. Bell, writing in The New Republic, has this to say regarding the future of libraries:


IF LIBRARIES ARE to survive, and thereby preserve their expertise, their communal functions, their specialized collections, and the access they provide to physical books, they must find new roles to play. The critics of the NYPL Central Library Plan claim that it has put the library’s standing as a premier research institution in jeopardy, but they finally fail to acknowledge that the very nature of premier research institutions—and all other libraries—is changing in radical and inexorable ways. Clinging to an outdated vision of libraries is in fact the best recipe for making them look hopelessly obsolescent to the men and women who control their budgets, thereby ensuring that the nightmare scenario that I have laid out actually comes to pass.

In imagining new roles, it is important to think about the way that the digital revolution has already changed the world of learning as a whole—above all, in its democratizing effects. To be sure, the world of learning has always had its democratic institutions, with the NYPL itself among the greatest. Anyone can walk in off the street into the Schwarzman Building, get a reader’s card, and have immediate access to one of the greatest troves of learning ever assembled. And yet, in practice, most people have not had the resources, physical or intellectual, to make use of such a wonderful resource. Doing so required time that working adults could not easily spare. And in most cases it also required a high level of education. For every autodidact who found in its collections the keys to a new universe, many other well intentioned readers, less motivated or less skilled, ended up turning away in confusion.

Today interested readers, or aspiring amateur scholars, have far more help available, most of it at their Internet-enabled fingertips. There are full undergraduate courses online, complete with lectures, free from the likes of Harvard and MIT. There are excellent and accessible lecture courses geared explicitly to the general public from sources such as The Teaching Company, for a low cost or for free from a public library. There are half a dozen allegedly “educational” television networks, even if ones such as The History Channel have increasingly shifted to routine entertainment programming. And of course there are an infinity of websites offering introductions to every subject under the sun. Caveat lector, yes—but what an embarrassment of riches.


I took the title for this post from librarian Kate Adler, who pointed out that Bell’s argument rests on the idea that even if somehow all books disappear as physical objects, there would still be a need for a meeting space of the type that only libraries provide. I think the entire thing is worth reading and considering.

Anyway, I’m heading to Vermont for two weeks, where the internet is rather more spotty than in NYC. As a result, no posts next week apart from Twitter and Facebook tidbits. Back on the 14th.


Rich White Guy To Poor Black Kid: Get Technical

Gene Marks, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, (herein known by the phrase Rich White Guy, or RWG) offered some advice to an archtypical Poor Black Kid (PBK) last week regarding how to educate himself out of the ghetto by means of modern technology.  I'm not going to discuss his qualifications for giving advice of this type (none), nor the possibility that he has no idea what he's talking about (significant), nor the barely concealed privilege and racism of his remarks. That's been done very well elsewhere.

I want to talk about his advice to "get technical."

If I was a poor black kid I would get technical.  I would learn software.  I would learn how to write code.  I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online.  I would study on my own.  I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished.

Okay. That's a pretty general account of technical work. I'm not sure what "learning software" means: Learning to use Office 2010 well? Learning to write HTML? XML? Perl? Javascript? C++?  All have different applications, and learning to code competently in one won't necessarily help you with the others. High school (and college) classes in these subjects are limited by the quality of the slowest student–I found that out for myself studying XML at Queens College while pursuing my MLS. I got the concepts and the structure, but many of my classmates didn't. We stopped well short of where I'd hoped we'd be and I finished the studying on my own outside of class.

So, Poor Black Kid (PBK) will need textbooks and a lot of time to sit down in a quiet place where he won't be interrupted to study. That such places in urban settings can be few and far between doesn't seem to have occurred to RWG. The same goes for PBK's polishing his written communication skills. Want to learn to write well? Read several hundred books, several thousand articles, and write a thousand words or more a day for a year. That's how it's done. Time, space, and solitude are what's needed. Public libraries would be good spaces to do this in if they weren't being de-funded left and right.

Part the second:

And I would use the technology available to me as a student.  I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.  That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home than on the streets.  And libraries and schools have computers available too.  Computers can be purchased cheaply at outlets like TigerDirect and Dell’s Outlet.  Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.

At first glance this is not bad advice, but again, it misses the point. Three things stand out to me as a guy who sold computers and the components that went into them for years. First, schools and libraries (not to mention school libraries) in neighborhoods where Poor Black Kids go to school are likely to be poorly funded, staffed and maintained. The value of the equipment they have is directly proportional to the amount of money spent, which, as I said, is not likely to be high. So the equipment this kid is meant to educate himself on is likely to be old and semi-functional, or non-functional at least part of the time.

Second, what he calls "cheap" computers generally don't last more than a couple of years. That's why they are cheap. If you spent several thousand dollars at Dell to get the good stuff, then pay for a top-tier service contract on top of that, you get real customer service. If you didn't, you get sent to Dell Hell where you get to spend a fortune in phone charges listening to some guy with an ESL accent insist that you should turn your PC off and then on again. Third, yes, professional organizations often offer perks to their members but Poor Black Kid is obviously not a member of these fraternities yet, so this tidbit falls a bit flat.

If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study.  I’d become expert at Google Scholar.   I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help me understand books.  I’d watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy.  (I say relevant because some of these lectures may not be related to my work or too advanced for my age. But there are plenty of videos on these sites that are suitable to my studies and would help me stand out.)  I would also, when possible, get my books for free at Project Gutenberg and learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia to help me with my studies.

Now we get serious. It's time for Tech Talk.

"Free" is a relative term. Air and water are free until you need someone (say, the government) to guarantee it's safe to breathe and drink, or unless you want to take it with you in a big tank. That takes money. Technology in all its myriad forms, applications, and performances, takes real money to make happen. What RWG doesn't seem to get is this: what he calls free technology is only available because thousands of people who produce it worked long hours with no pay then made a conscious choice to give it away it for free. Textbooks–the mainstay of higher education in the industrialized world–are never free, and they are what the education industry thrives on: text book sales. (Forbes, being a publisher of some note, surely understands this.)

So. Does PBK have to pay for the software? No. But will he have to scrape up $80 for a 6-inch Kindle or more for a Netbook or laptop to make use of this online material? You bet your booty.

Anyway, here's an experiment for you: send your application to harvard with the words "Self educated by means of free technology" scrawled on it instead of a high school transcript, and then call them a week later and see how you did. If you're accepted, I'll eat a bug.

 I don't have a problem with Google Scholar per se (I'm unsure if it will ever live up to the hype but that's another post), but in my experience both as a teacher and student, services like Spark Notes and Cliff Notes do more to wreck kids' ability to read a book than anything else. You won't understand the book any better, you just get exposed to a slim cross-section of it. That's not reading. That's cramming for an exam. Not a habit PBK should be cultivating this early in his academic career. Sources like TED and KhanAcademy are worthwhile, or one could be really ambitious and take a look at MIT's Open Courseware website.

I love Project Gutenberg. How can you not like a source of 36,000 free ebooks for download to a PC or portable device? The books are high-quality items all produced by bona fide publishers, and are made available through the effort of thousands of volunteers. The trouble is that these books are not generally textbooks. Classics, yes, and lots of them (here's the top 100 titles by download), but Business, Science, and Math classes don't use the classics. They use textbooks. Those are expensive and not generally available on line except in the most expensive universities.

The CIA World Fact Book, also isn't a bad resource. It's not the most easily accessible almanac in the world but, yes, it is complete, as long as you remember that its data are limited to descriptions of countries. Wikipedia, on the other hand is not a primary resource. For anything. Ever. Why? It's written and edited by absolutely everyone regardless of background, education, or research. Some articles are clearly better (or worse) than others, but using Wikipedia as a primary source is a sure ticket to an F from any competent teacher.

That said, one thing Wikipedia can be extremely useful for is to show you where else to look for source material. Scan the article, then go to the reference links. Those will lead you to better sources.

I would use homework tools like Backpack, and Diigo to help me store and share my work with other classmates.  I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school.  I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote, Study Rails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet, and free online calculators.

I won't argue with any of this on a point-for-point basis, as they are good suggestions for people who make continual and substantive use of online files. But–and you knew there'd be a but–Diigo,  Backpack, Evernote and all those other good suggestions require all participants to have a PC of his or her own. In poor families, you're more likely to see one device shared among several people, or none at all. Again, Poor Black Kid is more likely to be relying on crappy equipment and spotty online access than not. These well-meant ideas don't work so well under those conditions.

I don't know what exactly our Rich White Guy thought he was thinking when he wrote this. None of it this is bad advice as far as it goes. But it seems inappropriate to me. It assumes that Poor Black Kids go to schools that are equally well funded and equipped as Rich White Kids' schools. That is not the case. It hasn't been the case for decades. Up to date textbooks, equipment, competent and well-paid teachers, and the time and opportunity to study are what make mediocre students into good ones and good students into great ones.

So . . . yes. Medicore White Guy is technically correct even as he misses (or obfuscates) the larger point: Poor Black Kid can use technology to help educate himself out of the inner city. Possibly even into a job in Big White Sky Building. But the tech he probably has access to will break often, take a lot longer to work, and the experience will suck.

But hey, at least it's possible, right?

EPA Quietly Resumes Dismantling Library System

I think the headline says it all, but you can click here for the whole story.  I posted an excerpt behind the cut.

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Do You Have a Library Disaster Story?

This request came from Lisl Zach and Michelynn McKnight of the Louisiana State U. School of Library Science by way of the METRO-L listserv a short while ago:

part of a research project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we are
collecting first-hand accounts of information professionals’ responses to a
range of community-wide disasters such as the recent Pacific
Northwest ice storms and the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes.

experiences will be used to develop case-based guidance material to help
prepare information professionals to face similar events in the future.

you, or somebody you know, have had an experience responding to a disaster, we
hope that you will take a few minutes to complete our brief online survey. We are particularly interested in hearing how
information professionals have met the needs of their users at a time of crisis
by providing new or customized services. These services could include extending library hours, providing Internet
access to displaced persons, developing outreach services for people in
shelters, or any other library responses to suddenly   changed
information needs. This research effort
goes well beyond the traditional focus of disaster planning-that is, the preservation
of the physical plant, collections, and staff-and concentrates on the potential
role of information professionals as important "first responders"
during community-wide disasters.

survey should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. The results of the survey will enhance our
understanding of the types of disasters in which information professionals have
been involved as well as the ways in which they have responded. Please pass
this survey on to anybody you think might be interested.

You can take the survey online here, and more information regarding the project can be found here. There’s also a letter of consent, which I’ve put behind the link.

[Read more...]

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