I downloaded a book (and I liked it… sort of)

I felt as though, after my last post, I should play more with electronic books so that I can speak from a position of experience. So, I fired up my Kindle app on my iPhone – downloaded only because it was free – and flipped through my purchases, such as they were. I had only downloaded a short story and a few sample chapters, so I had no real experience at extended reading on my phone.

Because I’ve been enjoying the TV show True Blood based on Charlaine Harris’ novels, I decided to try the first in her Sookie Stackhouse series. I had flipped through them years before, and thought I might give them another try. After all, reading tastes change and I needed an “average” book to try out: something I would have bought in paperback, not too long or too short, just an average sort of book in order to get an average experience reading using Kindle.

Well, that was a mistake.

Dead Until Dark was a fun little book. So fun, in fact, I was eager to see what happened next in the series. And with an electronic book, all you have to do is hit the download button. It’s like a direct delivery system for book addicts; Kindle crack, if you will. The rush of instant gratification was a little magical and a little thrilling. There I was, in the backseat of a car, and within moments I was reading the continued tales of a vampire-dating waitress from Louisiana. I was about as happy as a real book lover could possibly be.

But that feeling didn’t last very long after I was done. For me, books are just about as social as anything else in the world. So of course I started thinking of people I would recommend this series to. And I realized that I could recommend all I liked, but that I wouldn’t be able to lend them my copies of the books! I’d have to hand over my phone in order to lend out my “books.” And in my mind, that’s a big loss. One of my big readers’ advisory mantras is that recommendations are only as good as your ability to connect the reader and book as fast as possible. Nobody likes to wait, and there’s a reason why Big Chain Bookstores engage in the “here, let me hand you the merchandise” practice: it cements the deal.

So while the e-book version was convenient for me as a solitary reader, it led me into a dead end. Even if I was able to “gift” my digital copy to another reader, it would still only be able to be read on an iPhone or a Kindle itself. I think the experience left me a little poorer than it found me – although now I’ve read the books, I’m not able to share that with other people unless they are willing to pay about $6.00 and go out to find the books themselves.

I’m inclined to think that this hurts the publishing industry more than it supposedly helps them. I rarely lend out an entire series of books, but I frequently lend the first copy in a series to friends and colleagues who are willing to give them a try. How many subsequent sales does that drive? Also, the price point seemed pretty arbitrary to me. I could pay between $2.00-$6.00 for a used paperback copy for the same book locally, and have the residual value of the physical book left over for sharing, etc. In theory, e-books are so cost-efficient to deliver to the consumer that it totally disrupts the distribution model. You only need one copy of the book on a central server to make a copy of for each reader, so I hope more of the profits would go to the writer (but I strongly suspect this isn’t really the case). And finally, publishers are losing their cheapest form of free advertising. Nobody I encountered that day knew I was sitting there reading Dead Until Dark. They had no clue. When carrying around a physical book in public, I usually get at least basic questions from people I encounter like “is that any good?” or “do you like it?” Now those chance encounters are all closed off.

So in the pros column, we have convenience and portability as well as instant gratification. But in the cons column, I experienced a lot of frustration in trying to share my reading experience. E-books also seem expensive given their limitations and restrictions.

While I won’t be repeating this experience with downloadable audiobooks (I am notoriously unable to listen to books, so it wouldn’t be a fair experiment), I do feel like I’ve gotten more insight on the electronic reading experience. If anyone has thoughts to share, I’d like to hear what you have to say in the comments section.

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!!!

Uglies free online!


One of the most popular series for teens is a limited-time free download in .pdf format! Of course, they’re promoting Westerfeld’s newest book, Leviathan, but who can complain about that? As more and more publishers make their works available in online forms, I can see more and more ways that you could leverage this free/cheap material for classroom use. Of course, the best aspect of the online text is its infinity – instead of having to police limited numbers of physical copies and tell students to hustle and read so others can have access too, every student could log in and read online, or download to their personal device– no waiting.

On a related note, education stands to gain the most from asking publishers to give up on DRM and concentrate on better ways to maximize revenue.

Book Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen


I reviewed this on my Goodreads account but I think it bears repeating here. Such a compelling work!

Dave Cullen’s thoroughly researched and evenhanded account of the 1999 Columbine High massacre is a superior work of non-fiction. Published to coincide with Columbine’s ten-year anniversary and drawing on his six-year old Salon piece “The Depressive and the Psychopath,” Cullen weaves together the riveting details of the events surrounding the killings. His telling of the story is decidedly non-linear, and creates a roller coaster-style narrative from the beginning. Just as we settle into a section describing the lives and motivations of the Columbine community, Cullen jerks us back into the world of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris– forcing readers to confront the fact that no “outsider” committed these crimes.

Cullen’s triumph may be in the quiet, matter-of-fact way he debunks the commonly held myths about the events. He cites a wide variety of sources to show readers things like Klebold’s hidden, unrequited loves and the girl in the library who professed her faith in God (not Cassie Bernall, as was widely attributed, but Val Schnurr– who lived to feel guilty about telling the tale).

Perhaps the most pervasive myth Cullen shatters is the conception that these killings occurred through a lack of empathy, of bullying gone overboard. It’s very difficult to read the psychiatric analysis of Eric Harris and to understand that his grandiosity and rage was merely symptomatic of a psychopath– that no loving care could have soothed him because he was detached from the normal range of human emotion.

Readers may not be reassured by Columbine, nor filled with hope or optimism. A quiet sense of loss pervades its pages. Cullen tells the story that begs to be told in its entirety both dispassionately and honestly; who of us could ask for more?

Relax. It’s just a book.

It’s summer, so you know what that means at the public library… a deluge of kids and parents looking for books! It’s great to see so many people who encourage youth to participate in summer reading. But why is finding the “right” book so difficult? While there are a lot of kids who sit in the aisles happily riffling through pages and browsing away, some parents are stressed about the process. We get requests at the reference desk for books specifically for second graders, and some parents struggle to define the sort of reading that they believe their kids should be doing.

Parents worry that their kids want to read books that don’t seem challenging for them, or that there is a problem because all they want to read is the next in a series, or that they reread books over and over again and are not “making progress.” They would like us, the librarians, to fix the perceived problem by recommending books that will alleviate these deficiencies in their kids’ reading habits.

It’s reassuring and unnerving, I know… but there is no right book. Rereading is perfectly fine. Series fiction is fabulous. Nonfiction titles are legitimate reading. What makes the difference is offering kids a wide variety of reading choices and then stepping back to let them actually choose.

If you think about it, there are few choices that kids get to make that are their very own. Let reading be an activity where they are in the drivers’ seat. Help them find a book that has a story that intrigues them, excites them, scares them, or attracts them in some other fundamental way. Let them read widely if that’s what they’re into right now, or help them find that 100th book about the Titanic or Ancient Egypt or whatever topic they are obsessing about at the moment.

Even more than that, you should be checking out books too. Find a magazine that you like, or a novel of your own to check out as well. Everyone in the family needs to read for pleasure if you want young people to see that reading is an activity with value. They will want to do what they see you doing, so engage in reading alongside your children. Research has even shown that the more time you give kids to simply read for pleasure, not towards a goal or for another purpose, the better readers they become.

So really relax this summer. Don’t make reading a chore, and don’t stress out about it. Just make it part of your daily lives, and encourage young people to read something of their own choosing. Let the library be an enjoyable haven for both you and your kids!

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.

Our Students, Ourselves

Librarians’ hearts were aflutter today as the New York Times reported on school librarians in their Future of Reading column. Motoko Richs’ article “In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update” features a day in the life of Stephanie Rosalia, a librarian at Public School 225 in Brooklyn. The piece marvels at how she does not simply stamp books and shush students, but rather teaches information literacy. It rose quickly to the #1 slot as today’s most emailed NYT article.

My Twitter network was quite active as we traded links to various responses, and, regrettably, the comments on the article itself. Most dismaying was comment #24 from “suenoir,” a reader who identified herself as a school board president from King County, WA and who felt that school libraries & librarians are superfluous in the face of the Internet and public libraries. She commented:

“If teachers used the public libraries, imagine what could be done with the space now occupied by the library. What if it were a music room? An engineering lab? Students have access to a librarian at public libraries, they do not have access to so many other resources.”

This commenter appears to be affiliated with the Highline Public Schools (Susan Goding, board member, used the email suenoir@hotmail.com in her campaign information which is easily available online). Goding’s district indicates that they enroll in excess of 17,000 students, and one of their secondary facilities reports that they see an average of around 100 students a day in their media center for regularly scheduled classes, not including students using the library who are not specifically scheduled for instruction. That’s an awful lot of students to absorb at a local public library branch!

This article served to remind us in the library community that our patrons do not always easily or readily understand the differences in purpose between different library types. They may think of us all as interchangeable widgets, able to help in any library we might find ourselves in. This is not so. I had a great email conversation with Liz Burns and Sophie Brookover of Pop Goes the Library on just this topic:

Sophie: This article made me stand up and cheer, right at the breakfast table (because that’s where I read it, after a friend posted it to my Wall on Facebook). Stephanie Rosalia is a perfect example of what a great, properly trained and enthusiastic school librarian can offer, which a public librarian cannot: just-in-time learning opportunities for students that relates directly to what they are learning in the classroom every day. She is exactly the kind of school librarian I want to be when I grow up.

edh: Yes, we public librarians often have very little contact with teachers at individual schools despite robust outreach efforts. I know some patrons get the mistaken impression that we’re not concerned with student needs.

Liz: Public libraries don’t ignore students; far from it! But a public library’s main mission is not to be geared towards students. It’s a system geared towards the entire public. Yes, that includes the homeless; teens; seniors; young mothers; people using the Internet; and students.

edh: I loved how the article and video demonstrated Ms. Rosalia’s ability to incorporate all sorts of content in her school library. She’s obviously deeply involved in the curriculum and learning process in her school.

Sophie: School librarians remix and mash up content from all sorts of sources — online, print, audio, video, and more — every day, all with a view towards matching the right content with the right kids at the right time. Public librarians do this every day, as well, but to be a great public librarian is to be a fantastic generalist. To be a school librarian is to be what many of us are called these days, a media specialist. As a media specialist, your area of specialization is your school’s curriculum. You are aware of a wide body of resources, but you home in on the materials that meet the specific needs of your students’ assignments.

edh: Absolutely! I am not entirely sure that the school board member who commented on the article understands the distinction between our libraries’ functions.

Liz: Saying “use the public library, there is so much more we can do with school resources and money” is like trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too. Because while sometimes there are actual joint libraries (with appropriate funding and staffing), more often shutting the school library does not result in additional funding being given to the public library. So there is an addition of students needing instruction, books and materials for reports, but no funds to purchase those additional books or to hire the needed staff.

edh: And some public libraries have restrictions on the materials they can buy – collection development policies can prohibit us from purchasing the books and media that would best address student learning.

Liz: And that’s aside from the loss of the librarian as teacher. When will those students be able to go to the local library? Students get transportation to schools; they don’t have the same access to public libraries. Those students with parents who have the transportation and time will benefit from school libraries; those students whose parents don’t have ready access to cars and who work while the library is open, won’t be able to use the public library. I’ve been in libraries where there are a good number of local kids who use the libraries; and just as many kids who don’t, because they don’t live close enough to the library to walk or ride a bike safely. Public libraries may be full of students; but can one imagine that if they are filled WITH school libraries available, how overwhelmed those libraries would be WITHOUT school libraries?

Additionally, public library budgets are being cut. What would your school do when the public library cuts hours, staff, and the materials budget? Open up the school library? By that time you’d have a dearth of materials missing from the years it was closed.

edh: That’s just for materials designed to support academic assignments – imagine all the great fiction titles you would have missed out on in the intervening years. The public library alone is not enough to supply a student with the choices they need to read widely for enjoyment.

Sophie: A good school library should absolutely have high-appeal leisure reading. After all, AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner are fully 25% about the pursuit of personal and aesthetic growth, and with that in mind, I’ve sunk a large proportion of my own school library’s budget into high-quality, high-appeal books for my students to read for fun. I’ve been lucky enough to have the unswerving support of my school’s English Department, many members of which have brought hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of students to my Library Media Center for booktalks and reader’s advisory, all in the service of year-round independent reading assignments. This collaborative effort has been so successful that I plan to continue to develop and promote the LMC’s fiction and nonfiction collections for leisure reading.

There are so many opportunities for school librarians to collaborate with public librarians to provide even better services and collections to our students, but I think it’s very important, as Liz said, for school and public librarians to spend some serious time educating the general public about the different missions of each institution, as well.

edh: Yes, letting people know about what we do in different libraries is imperative. I find myself also recommending special libraries to students who have a very specific or advanced assignment. We’re lucky to have special libraries in the Kansas City area that will lend freely to the public and assist students with individual disciplines. The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education library is great for students looking at Judaism and World War II, and the Linda Hall Library has a special collection just for aspiring teen scientists among their more esoteric materials. Access to only one library is never enough! If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a variety of libraries to educate them into adulthood.

Erin Downey Howerton is the school liaison at the Johnson County (KS) Library, and is a member of YALSA and AASL.

Elizabeth Burns is a Youth Services Librarian for the New Jersey
Library for the Blind & Handicapped. She is active in YALSA and NJLA.

Sophie Brookover is the Library Media Specialist at Eastern Regional
Senior High School in Voorhees, NJ. She is active in YALSA and NJLA.

This was originally posted at the YALSA blog and is also available at www.popgoesthelibrary.com.

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?

The New Ownership

Today I read two very interesting items:

1) CC Learn reports that

the University of Michigan Library has adopted CC licensing for all of its own content. Any work that is produced by the library itself, and to which the University of Michigan holds the copyrights, will be released under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial license (CC BY-NC).

2) Scott McLeod is blogging on his attempt to convince ISTE that they should ask their conference presenters to apply a CC license to their presentations for the benefit of the larger K-12 .edu community.

It really seems that a larger awareness of Creative Commons, at least among the .edu technorati, is brewing.  Instead of trying to protect and hide intellectual work behind the total wall of traditional copyright, the new conversation looks like it will revolve around how others should be permitted to use that intellectual work.  

This is a significant shift in the traditional ownership concept.  While U of M is purposefully moving forward in a unified direction with their CC licensing, the other side of the coin is seen in the vigorous discussion among the ISTE folks.  I also believe that this is shedding light on the changing nature of conferences in general.
While meeting in person is incredibly powerful and energizing, technology is making it more and more possible to participate in conferences (while not actually attending).  And the possibility of this is awesome, as it promises to break down distance and other barriers to learning.  However, not all conferences might be as open-minded as ISTE.  You want to get a good return on your investment when putting on a conference, and I can see other organizations afraid to even consider asking presenters to release their intellectual work freely.  To some, this may be seen as devaluing the conference experience and letting people “get all the benefits of attending for free!”  
Dedicated conference-goers know that’s not the case.  Attending in person has a power that few other experiences can match.  However, restricting ideas to small groups of only a few does nothing to encourage the free flow of innovation.  If we really want to effect change within our professions, we have to think about throwing the doors wide open to see what happens.  
…and, for a whole other spin on this same topic, check out Will Richardson’s post on Larry Lessig’s new book, Remix.  
%d bloggers like this: