Just call it my Babel wish…

I spent an hour with a patron the other day trying to figure out why, suddenly, her MP3 player refused to let her listen to audiobooks from one of our vendors. It worked before… and now, it wouldn’t.

She just wanted to lend it to her students, and let them listen. It turns out that the software installed on her player is a huge problem for nearly everyone, and she would have to reformat the player to even attempt to get it to work.

Digital Rights Management, in its current form(s), effectively prevents libraries from delivering the information people want and need. DRM controls how a digital copies of audiobooks, songs, and e-books are decoded by the consumer, and is seen as essential to preserving the rights of creators and distributors. While DRM prevents people from easily copying and distributing these works, it also prevents them from easily consuming them. The industry seems unwilling to agree on a single standard that would work on any device, instead choosing to elaborately encode digital files with competing technology.

And that’s where libraries come in. We are dedicated to bringing patrons the media they want and need, but now find ourselves at a crossroads: there are stories and information out there that are impossible for us to provide to our patrons because of DRM. The perfect example is the novella Ur by Stephen King. Since this story is only available on the Kindle reader from Amazon, we cannot purchase a copy to lend out. Some interpret the Kindle terms of service to mean that you cannot lend the actual device to another person to read the books, which is pretty draconian, but it is certainly well understood that it is a violation of their terms of service to transfer the purchase to another device – in other words, we couldn’t even buy a digital copy of the story to lend out to patrons on their own devices! That’s as ridiculous as telling someone that they are only allowed to read in certain rooms of their house, but it’s roughly the equivalent.

If we come back to my poor patron who could not wrestle her MP3 player’s software into submission, we can also see how DRM can ruin the audiobook experience as well. If you’ve never attempted to borrow a downloadable audiobook from a library, the pitfalls are many: computer issues, device issues, and software issues – oh my!

First, our library blocks downloading at patron computers. That means that when we are attempting to help a patron with their audiobook, we are typically coaching them over the phone or the internet. The process is especially challenging because the patrons may not be computer savvy in the first place, and may need help with basic tasks that are totally foreign to them. Then you have to determine if their cell phone, MP3 player, or other device is compatible with your vendor – we use NetLibrary/Recorded Books and Overdrive between the audiobooks we’ve bought and the ones we get through our State Library. Even if their device is listed as compatible, they may have some sort of strange software pre-installed by the manufacturer that cripples the process. Finally, there is usually some sort of download involved to the end user’s computer in order to translate the DRM coding on the receiving end – and that may not work perfectly and need additional troubleshooting.

While DRM is a component of digital files that can potentially protect copyright and ensure that authors aren’t missing out on hard-earned revenue, the industry has failed in its execution (especially where libraries are concerned). When I hand a(n) (audio)book to a patron, I don’t tell them that they can only read it in their dining room or in the bathtub. They can take it to the beach, listen on their commute, or read in bed for all I care. Using DRM to restrict digital files to certain devices or certain software is the 21st century equivalent of deciding the medieval monks got it right by chaining books to the shelves so nobody would make off with them!

While in the past there might have been merit in standing back and letting the industry develop a standard, as in the VHS vs. Betamax format war of the late 1970s, I don’t think today’s libraries have this luxury. Our patrons are depending on us to deliver information to them that works no matter which device they have purchased, not to sit around waiting to see what sort of highly restricted, totally proprietary system that various publishing industries will invent. It’s not out of the question to imagine Rhapsody and the Sony Reader e-inking an exclusive deal with one set of publishers/record companies, while another set decides to provide content only to Amazon Kindles and iTunes. How would we provide access then?

The future of publishing is content that is device agnostic. We need a standard that allows for both ease in downloading and copy protection. And libraries could make this happen sooner than you think.

If publishers want to know what’s in it for them, I can tell you right now that it’s spelled SALES. Adopt a common currency for distributing media files, make it easy for people to use them, and the money will certainly follow. Libraries are crazy about downloadables anyway because they eliminate the possibility of damage or inevitability of replacement that you get with physical copies of media. (Consumers like all that too, by the way.)

The American Library Association estimates that there are around 123,129 libraries in the United States alone. If each library were to donate just $5 to a common fund, we could start a competition much like the X Prize Foundation. That’s a pot of over $600,000 as a prize for developing the best universal DRM system ready for immediate and cost-effective adoption by the publishing industry. I’m willing to throw in the first Lincoln! I’ve been calling it my private Babel Wish, but I’m open to better suggestions now that I’ve gone public.

We have a professional obligation to collaborate in ways that expand access to knowledge. This would be one powerful way to do it. Are you in?

Techy Talk via OPAL!

I gave a little talk today to folks from all over the world online! It was delivered via OPAL (Online Programming for All Libraries) and it’s still going strong – I’m definitely tuning in tomorrow for more awesome talks!

In these budget-crunching times, an online conference is a great way to network and learn without traveling and spending a lot of dough. I was pleased to talk about education, libraries, and technology… and pleased to see so many interested “faces” in the crowd!

Check it out at OPALescence (my page is here)! It’s FREE, it’s ONLINE, and it’s EASY. Things don’t get awesomer than that!!!

Welcome to the 21st century library

I am a survivor of many a teen gaming tournament. I’ve organized and worked at both computer and console gaming events in several libraries, and I can say without a doubt that it’s plain hard work. And it’s worthwhile work – I’m just as likely to ask a reluctant reader what games they like to play in order to help them pick out a book as I am to ask them about their favorite movies and TV shows. If I was totally out of touch with gaming and other activities that teens love, I would not be able to effectively connect young people to all sorts of media – including books.

If librarians look like they’re having fun on the job, it’s because we love what we do, not because we get to sit around playing games all day. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Nebraska, where some are accusing the State Library Commission of being wasteful stewards of taxpayer money by purchasing and learning to use gaming equipment with the intent to train public librarians in their state.

This sort of training is needed – in my current library system, we had to hold trainings and create a usage manual for our gaming kits. Using gaming equipment is not exactly an intuitive process, and we need to be just as prepared for gaming programs as we do for any other programs. If librarians didn’t study up on games before presenting them to the public, it would be like not reading the book before showing up to facilitate a book group. Or not trying out a database before teaching a patron to use it.

Gaming in libraries is important for several reasons. Reluctant users can see that librarians are aware of and appreciate the activities that are important to them. The library can become less intimidating and comfort can be established for young patrons who are underserved or unserved. Gaming also creates community for patrons who are highly social, helping gamers connect with like-minded people. Libraries collect stories of all kinds, and they can be found in books, music, movies, and games!

But it’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of work involved. And while it may look like we’re just playing around, librarians are gaming with a purpose: to help young people through our doors and into the larger collection – for life-long learning and community building. It looks unorthodox, it may be noisy and boisterous, and it challenges long-held stereotypes about libraries and library atmosphere. Welcome to the 21st century library!

For more information about how our library has phased gaming into our regular services, check out my VOYA article: So You Wanna Play Games? A Start-up Guide for Gaming in the Library.

The year in ed

I wanted to cap off this year’s blogging with a good activity. So I decided to use Wesley Fryer’s prompt to read the posts nominated for Most Influential of 2008 in the EduBlog Awards.

Chris of BetchaBlog posted on the New Digital Divide. Just more anecdotal proof that the education field is suffering from the same (digital?) malaise as the library field:

I think what often shocks me the most about teachers who don’t take technology very seriously, is just how far behind they really are. They don’t have any idea just how out of touch they are with the kids they teach each day… kids who in most cases are far too polite to say anything about their teachers’ lack of technology understanding. But trust me, they know who you are…

Some of the classic excuses for why some teachers don’t integrate technology might include the following… how many have you heard before?

  • “Im retiring in a couple of years anyway” (yes, but your students are not)
  • “I’m too old to learn this stuff”
  • “I’m too busy, I don’t have the time”
  • “I have too much content to get through” (this one is usually followed by “you just don’t know what it’s like”… ah, yes, I do.)
  • “I don’t really like computers” (you don’t have to like them, you just have to use them)
  • “I just don’t understand technology” (as though they think no one has noticed that yet)

Chris goes on to say he’s most scared about the growing chasm between the “information-wills” and the “information-will-nots.” I hear that! Honestly, this has nothing to do with age – I meet just as many younger folks who use these excuses as older ones.

Reading all the nominated posts was a pleasure – it was great to hear diverse voices in the field from all around the world! The international nature of online education dialogue is really what will help change the nature of “doing school” in the 21st century. It’s not going to be just one school or one state/province/district or even one country – I now truly believe that the education revolution is going to be driven from a global perspective. Is there even any other? Thomas Friedman only said what was obvious: the world is flat, and we affect each other more than ever on a daily basis.

I can only hope that holds true and that this magnificent online educational community will grow, keep learning, and use their voice to speak for true change and authentic learning experiences for students the world over. This movement is more important than ever: if we’re all too busy and cannot make the time to do the important work of our day, what sort of example will we set for youth?

Another TED talk and thoughts on cross-pollination for results

Besides education, one of my other favorite subjects is urban design. Strange, I know, for someone who has never lived in a major urban area until now. But in 1997, our university invited Howard Kunstler to talk about new urbanism and I began to recognize and put a name to the malaise that we suffered in our town… the issues that we faced living so far from work and school, the blandness of our neighborhoods, our lack of sidewalks. He got booed, I’m sorry to say, but this member of the audience was riveted.

So why am I talking about urban design on this blog, which mostly focuses on my professional thoughts about education? Well, I think they are all completely interrelated. Let’s cross-pollinate: urban/suburban design, education, and transportation… stay with me, and I’ll take you there.

Our public library is a medium-sized system with 13 (soon to be 14 branches) in far-flung suburbs all over a county that is a member of the metropolitan Kansas City area. We’re talking about our future in a new strategic plan, and the same old same old is coming up: how to market ourselves, how to position our branches for maximum impact, how to drive traffic, and most importantly how to help our patrons get the information they need to improve their quality of life. But we are a non-profit focused on life-long learning, affiliated with county government, and all these things seem to be insurmountable challenges… for example, where do we get the money for well-situated buildings and advertising when we can barely fund the materials collection?

One thing is for certain – we may not choose to (or be able to) support our current way of life for much longer. We see the craving for urban amenities in our suburban area and can’t make them happen because of zoning, a lack of funds, and a fractured ecosystem of separate cities and townships all determined to hold on to what makes them unique (which is not necessarily bad, but presents serious obstacles to cooperative work).

In order to really innovate in ways that make us sustainable in the long term, I envision working outside our boundaries and partnering with a different agency: the county bus system. Our buses have limited routes and almost no bus shelters along routes (riders are instructed to just wait anywhere along the route to be picked up, which is inefficient, dangerous, and causes unnecessary exposure to the elements). People are often very far from these routes, causing bus riders to face potential walks up to a mile or more at both or either end of the ride. It’s just not a really great system as it currently stands. For example, I don’t ride the bus because I would have to walk nearly a mile to my workplace from the point where I would disembark. Showing up to work sweaty in the summer and totally frozen in the winter is highly unappealing.

We should partner with our bus system to accomplish several of these tasks. FIRST: buses should stop at every library in the county – period. We should be bus stops to encourage people to use our resources, visit us regularly, and we can provide an appropriate place for riders to wait in out of the elements.

SECOND: the buses could assist in carrying our courier loads. If we were part of the bus system, we wouldn’t need separate courier vans taking trips only to deliver books… we’d be delivering patrons too! We might also be able to provide materials faster with several courier trips a day instead of only once or twice around the circuit.

THIRD: The best part of the deal might include co-branding of the buses so that the library name and message is tooling all around the county and being seen everywhere.

FOURTH: Our involvement with transportation would provide an important bargaining chip when obtaining land for new and expanded buildings – bus stops need to be front and center on major roads, so we could use that leverage in maintaining our physical presence in the community.

FIFTH: Eventually, we should merge with existing school bus companies to provide expanded routes and additional stops so that a single system could serve multiple groups of people in a more efficient way. It would provide additional flexibility for teachers to take students to use the public library during the school day for more differentiated instruction – we have resources and programs that complement both remedial and advanced learning plans, and could develop more in concert with one another with improved physical access.

We have the opportunity to take concrete steps towards a more cohesive (sub)urban design, and as a library we could help knit things together in a logical way by combining existing systems. This idea still needs refinement, but it’s what came to mind as I was thinking about our library as part of the bigger picture. It’s so easy just to think about what we need and want, but if we can combine our mission with that of other agencies we might be able to create something bigger than ourselves: the first steps towards more unity in our larger community. Maybe these sorts of connections create community 2.0 🙂 Our “systems,” as Jaime Lerner says, should not compete with one another. They should make sense on a human scale to improve our lives, with thoughtful design and an eye on the future.

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