It’s Coming: The Bookless Public Library

Bexar County, home to San Antonio Texas, is going to develop a bookless library system with the first branch opening in the fall. The county system will operate side-by-side with San Antonio system, which has physical books.

Bexar County’s BiblioTech library system won’t have a legacy of paper. It’ll be designed for, not adapted to, the digital age, Wolff said.

I applaud this effort on the face of it, but I think questions linger.

It all appears a bit premature to me. Even if the long term trajectory is for paper books to go extinct, I don’t think we are anywhere near that reality now. Users still read a lot of paper books, whether from preference or the affordability of eReaders and tablets. Also, a bookless library seems unconcerned with children’s literacy. I am not sure what the plan is for BiblioTech, but I am skeptical that any collection of ebooks or tablet apps will beat a large collection of children’s material. Finally, publishers are still not 100% behind giving access to their ebooks to libraries. This leaves a gigantic short fall in the coverage and availability of titles for any aspiring bookless library.

However, the fact that the Bexar County system will be operating in the same community as the San Antonio City Library system may answer some of these questions. They will be catering to those who primarily wish to do research on a computer or don’t mind checking out eReaders with limited amount of books. If users, such as children, need physical books, they can go to the city system. But this would seem to suggest that any bookless library couldn’t operate without access to a traditional library.

The first branch to test out the idea will be opened on the south side of the city. This is explained as an attempt at:

providing them a service that anybody else that has money would have..

Attempting to bridge the digital divide, in other words. This is also to be praised. Those in the library profession are acutely aware of the need to expand access to computers and the internet. In fact, this may be the best reason to open such branches. I could envision future library systems with large branches that still have physical books and satellite branches that only have computers and digital collections. It may be cheaper to open several digital branches as opposed to developing a physical collection for one smaller branch.

An intriguing experiment and I will be interested in its progress when the first branch opens in the fall. I have my doubts, but perhaps its opening will be more prophetic than not.

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Weeding: Making an Unbiased Decision

The power to remove a book from a collection is one I had not contemplated too much when in library school. And so it was that I held a copy of Michael Behe‘s Darwin’s Black Box in my hand mulling over the decision whether or not to pull the book. I had very good reasons to believe the book should be pulled but what gave me pause was the consideration that my own bias might be leading me to make a hasty decision.

There are several things to consider when making a decision about weeding an item: accuracy, currency, condition, and use. I admit that I am new to weeding, but so far, I have pulled most books on account of condition: yellowed pages, torn covers, and broken spines. Condition and use were not an issue with this book. The item is in good shape and still appeared to go out on a regular basis. In fact, use would be points in its favor. That leaves accuracy and currency.

First, a brief summary of the books main points. From Wikipedia:

[Behe] presents his notion of irreducible complexity and claims that its presence in many biochemical systems indicates therefore that they must be the result of intelligent design rather than evolutionary processes.

An example of irreducible complexity might be a mechanical pocket watch. Take out any part and the whole watch ceases to function. Behe extrapolates this to biological life and uses examples from microbiology, such as the bacterium flagellum, as examples analogous to the pocket watch. He asserts that these complex biological machines couldn’t evolve, because if they were missing any of their parts they couldn’t function  Behe is a biochemist and not an evolutionary biologist.

Currency: Any book on the theory of evolution may be considered for weeding on currency alone. Things change fast in this field, with new information coming to light all the time. A book published in 1996, almost 20 years ago, could be seriously outdated. There are exceptions, of course. Darwin’s Origin of Species is kept around because it is a classic, despite that his theory has been updated since its publication. Other exceptions may be popular science books whose function may be more to explain complex subjects in laymen’s terms and whose general information may not be that out of date. Behe’s book, though, put forward an idea, that if true, would overturn everything science knew about evolution up to that point. Currency would seem not to apply here.

That leaves accuracy. Simply put: Behe is wrong. Full disclosure: I have not read this book and am not an evolutionary biologist. However, when it comes to making decisions about weeding, a librarian is not expected to have read all the books in the collection. I have, however, read plenty of criticisms of irreducible complexity and intelligent design to understand that it is not an accurate description of the process of evolution or a threat to the integrity of the theory. You can read here or watch this video for fuller explanations.

I had come to hold the book in my hand because Darwin’s Black Box is shelved in the science section, where I was weeding. It seemed an obvious candidate for weeding because I knew the information was inaccurate. However, there are books in science that are about science itself. These need not be accurate in the sense that they may not be asserting facts but perhaps pondering the implications of scientific discoveries.

Behe’s book doesn’t fall into this category, but it skirts the territory. Behe is a biochemist and he uses his knowledge of this field to put forward a theory of why evolution can’t be possible. In fact, looking at the Dewey Call number, 572.838, we see that it is cataloged under biochemistry (other libraries I looked at catalogued it under “Evolution, origins of life,” 576.83 with similar titles, which seems to have the same effect. It is not seen as a book on evolution, per se.), not theories of evolution, 576.82. This is an important distinction. It would seem, that as far as the catalog is concerned, this book is not perceived as presenting facts about evolution, but as a possible critique, using information from another field.

As a librarian, I am expected to provide access to information in an unbiased way. So, while I do not believe in astrology, I would be expected to provide access to astrology information, none the less. However, I am also expected to provide accurate and current information within a respective domain. If someone came in asking for books on geology and size of the Earth, I would not show them books about the Earth being flat. Darwin’s Black Box presented a special challenge, as the science regarding evolution is sound and intelligent design is not a serious challenger. However, after reflection, I realized that my gut reaction had biased me against the book. I couldn’t weed it because within the domain it represented, intelligent design, its accuracy was fine, and it wasn’t catalogued as a book about evolution. In addition, if a user asked for information on evolution, I am not compelled to guide them to this book.

This was an important experience for me. As I gain more experience as a librarian and take on more responsibilities, holding a neutral stance in regards to the information provided to the public will be more important. This book just happened to bring the importance of the decisions into relief. In the process of weeding, I make a similar decisions with every book I review.

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Tech Games: The Home Stretch

It is the last couple of weeks for the Tech Games. I admit I have worked ahead a bit so I completed most of the exercises a few weeks ago. But, now is the time to sum up the experience.

First: Social networking. This seems to be an underutilized free resource. It is great that we tested it out ourselves, but for future games, it might be worthwhile to give participants additional goals or tasks with them. For example, in addition to creating accounts in Facebook or Twitter, maybe we could interact a little by finding other users who have liked or followed the library.  Maybe a goal could be getting a user to come to the library for an event by communicating with them on Facebook or Twitter.

eBooks are interesting. As a kindle owner, it is a relatively painless activity. After a few clicks (though, this seems like a lot of clicks) the book is delivered wirelessly to my device. For all others, you have to use Adobe Digital Editions on your computer, attach your device and manually transfer the book. WHY?! eBooks should be painless. Any added complexity is a disincentive. Actually, there is an easier solution if you own a tablet or the new Nook HD: the Overdrive APP. With the Overdrive app a user can search the catalog and download a title directly to their device. They also read it using the Overdrive app. If one is not a Kindle owner and has a tablet, this is the preferred method.

The county’s list of online learning courses is pretty extensive and I look forward to learning a few new software programs. Also, the final list of web apps and sites wer very interesting. I picked up a few I hadn’t seen like EarlyWord and Instructables. Instructables is especially fascinating as it is a website of instructions for just about everything. Looking forward to wasting a lot time here.

Overall, techgames was a good experience and worth the time spent dedicated to learning new skills and brushing up on some old ones. I appreciate the Library using games as an incentive for training. I look forward to more.

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To cross…that magic threshold into a library…

Official photographic portrait of US President...

Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better.”
— President (then Senator) Barack Obama

Barack Obama was reelected as President of the United States of America a couple of weeks ago so I thought it only fitting to find a quote from him. He said this when he was a Senator, but he has mentioned libraries several times and I hope that it is an indication of the value he finds in libraries. The President, and the US government, have a lot on their table but I hope, as budget and economic negotiations continue, that Public Libraries will be on their radar as a worthy investment.

Personally, I don’t have a single memory of the first time I entered a library but more of a montage of images and impressions. I grew up in a small Texas town and the library was in an old downtown store that had closed. The light was dim and the smell of old books permeated the air. The collection was small, but I do remember getting books and possibly going to a few story times. I am not even sure how it was funded, and after searching on Google, it doesn’t appear to exist anymore. I have stronger impressions of the elementary school library, where I cultivated an early interest in all things science; and since I was at school everyday, it was a more convenient place to check out books. For me, it was the school library that provided that magic threshold into a world of knowledge and imagination. While no one book sticks out in my mind, I do recall spending hours in the astronomy section, learning the planets and being fascinated with drawings of space stations. I would check out whatever series the teacher happened to be reading to us in class, reading as many of the installments as I could, the titles of which are now lost from my memory. I left the town when I was twelve.

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Managing Life Online

The other day I had a reference question that reminded me of the importance of digital literacy and how this may be becoming more important than written literacy. An older gentleman came to me and asked if I could help him pay a bill online. This began an odyssey of locating various websites, accounts and password resets. In my own life I navigate these waters pretty effortlessly, but one could say I was born digital and spend a good amount of time on a computer. Managing my life online is near second nature and I barely give it another thought. However, this encounter put me out of this comfort zone and into the maddeningly complex world of the Internet.

I have had conversations with people who lamented that it was difficult to do anything these days without being online. There is a certain truth to this. It is nearly impossible not to be online. Just about every aspect of our lives must be managed online. As one example, my apartment complex a few months ago let its residence know that they could no longer pay rent in person or check. They had to do it online. I understand that for the apartment this streamlines their processing of rental fees, but for the residents it could present problems. Besides yet another online account vulnerable to attack with a password that needed to be remembered it possibly made life less convenient for them. If they do not own a computer or subscribe to the internet, they now had to find Internet access instead of just dropping off the check.

With managing your life online comes further complications. There is no international standard for online account user interfaces. Just about every bank, phone company, credit card company, etc. has their own unintuitive interface that users must learn to navigate and interpret; as opposed to justing writing a check and sticking it in the mail. For most users, I would wager they only visit these sites once a month. Unless you spend a majority of your time on the Internet, paying your bills online may be like traversing the same complex maze once a month. It feels familiar but you are still lost. Indeed, I felt this with the user I was helping.

I have heard discussions of digital literacy as part of the library mission, but had never experienced it in a such consequential way. Libraries play a role in not just showing where the information is, but teaching people how to manage their lives in the new digital world. Perhaps there is a certain generation gap but I am also willing to bet that there is demographic gap; the so-called digital divide that is much discussed in library circles. Can we really say that all children are getting the computer literacy skills they need in school? When they graduate will they be able to manage every aspect of their lives from the Internet?

The user left happy but I expect similiar questions in the future.

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Reflecting on Tech Games, thus far

This is icon for social networking website. Th...

This is icon for social networking website. This is part of Open Icon Library’s webpage icon package. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t claim I am learing a lot, but it is good to get a refresher on some things. As stated before, the Tech Games is about half social networking, half county technological resources. As I have blogs, twitter and Facebook accounts, and have tried almost every RSS reader, these activities have been little more than reviewing. The two wrinkles being: 1) most social networks are blocked on county computers, and 2) county computers are equipped with IE 8, which was released in 2009, ancient history in Internet time, and can’t render some of these websites correctly. But one makes do. NewsBlur has been an interesting learning experience. I am a Google fan and I use most of their products, including Google Reader for RSS. NewsBlur was able to pull my feeds from Reader without much hassle. I can’t say that I am impressed. Reader is still a better reader than NewsBlur on the interface side and the fact that NewsBlur only allows you to have 64  feeds (Reader has no limits) is a big turn off. After trying NewsBlur for a couple weeks, I can’t say that I will switch but it has its place.

Where I am learning is with the county’s technological resources. Learning to scan, email, and fax on county equipment is important. Taking the time to learn these things now will save me from figuring them out when I am in a rush to get something done.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see the Channel 16 library video. It was well produced and informative. I was a little disappointed to see that it was the only video from the library and wondered if a regularly updated video highlighting new library resources and services would be beneficial to users.

Tech Games has five weeks left.

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Access to knowledge is…the supreme act of truly great civilizations

English: Toni Morrison speaking at "A Tri...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

“Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations. Of all the institutions that purport to do this, free libraries stand virtually alone in accomplishing this.” — Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison hits the nail on the head. A civilization that would jeopardize this access  has taken a step backward. Often the value of a library is framed as a utilitarian argument: What are they good for? Can’t people get books and information else where? However, there are some things we value because they are imbedded in the foundation of our culture and not for their pragmatic use. Strong arguments can be made that libraries aid in job training, early literacy, employment and other tangible benefits; however, the library is also important for supporting the purist of knowledge as an intrinsic value. This election season, when you participate in our democratic civilization, no matter who you are voting for and if it is on the ballot, vote to support your library.

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